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'One cow apart': How the Iowa State Fair is moo-ving forward with livestock shows in pandemic


Sarah Kay LeBlanc   | Des Moines Register
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For the past five summers, the Lampe family’s August calendar has included a caravan from their Fort Madison farm to the east side of Des Moines’ to show sheep at the Iowa State Fair.

Although they are apprehensive about the spreading coronavirus, the Lampe family still decided to load up and make their annual trip for the 2020 fair’s socially distanced livestock shows. A young family, the Lampes are generally healthy, said patriarch Jay, and they don’t have any elderly relatives they’re worried about exposing.

“It would be different if we had great-grandparents that we were visiting,” he said. “Right now, we don’t.”

Although the Iowa State Fair was officially canceled in June, the fair board directed organizers to hold socially distanced livestock shows, ensuring those who started growing and training their animals well before the virus hit Iowa’s borders still had an opportunity to exhibit their hard work.

After months of planning, those shows kicked off last weekend with added pandemic precautions to ensure the safety of employees and exhibitors. More livestock events are planned for the second and third weekends of August.

These animal shows, last month’s “Taste of the Fair” weekends and the upcoming slate of online contests and ceremonies are part of organizers’ plan to highlight beloved fair events while trying to keep people as protected from the virus as possible.  

“Does that eliminate all the risk? No, it doesn’t,” said Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater. “But none of us are going to eliminate all the risk in our lives unless we just go home and never come out.”

As the Lampes and other farm families prepared for the socially distanced show Friday, the constant hum of chatter and footfalls from thousands of fairgoers was replaced with the echoes of bleating sheep and mooing cattle.

Scheduled so that only certain animals are on the grounds at any given time, each of the 2020 show weekends will see about 800 exhibitors spread out over the Sheep, Swine, Horse and Cattle barns, Slater said. The sheer size of the various barns — the swine barn alone is six acres — will allow for competitors and families to stay socially distanced.

Indeed, exhibitors were separated by several empty pens last weekend, and hand sanitizer stations were found all around the barns. Stickers encouraging attendees to “stay one cow apart” adorned the show rings’ bleachers.  

Each exhibitor is allowed only two guests this year, and the fair has released an additional 1,000 wristbands over the three weekends for those who want to watch the shows or accompany an exhibitor beyond their allocated tickets. About 300 of those wristbands are still available for purchase.

Because attendance is being kept low, the fair will offer livestreams of some of the events.

Additionally, exhibitors are not allowed to sleep in the barns overnight, as they might have done in previous years, Slater said. The campground is open to those with campers; other out-of-town exhibitors needing to spend the night in Des Moines will have to book a hotel.

Employees and volunteers are required to wear masks, Slater said. Exhibitors and attendees will be encouraged to do so. On Friday morning, there was nary a mask in sight among competitors, and just one judge wore a face covering.

“I think everybody is concerned no matter if you go to the grocery store or whatever you do that if you choose not to wear a mask and you get closer than 6 feet to somebody, the germ is contagious,” he said. “At my age, I’m going to wear my mask and I’m not going to shake your hand, and I’m going to try to be 6 feet from you.”

For Jay Lampe, the noticeable changes and precautions gave him comfort that the fair was doing its best to stop the spread.

“If exhibitors still don’t feel comfortable attending, it’s their choice,” he said.

Walker McDermott, 19, agreed, adding that from his vantage the fair was doing a “great job.”

“I think with the limitations set by the Centers for Disease Control and trying to keep the governor and all the higher-ups pleased and also pleasing the exhibitors, they’re doing what they can to keep all their bases covered,” he said.

McDermott has been traveling from Wiota to show livestock at the fair since elementary school and was excited to attend this year to show his two Simmental heifers, which he had been working hard to prepare for the fair since the fall.

Though the atmosphere is “totally different” without the thousands of visitors milling about the barns, McDermott said the toned-down shows aren’t necessarily bad.

“I personally enjoy the less amount of people,” he said. “There’s less amount of people to walk through.”

Unlike the Lampes or McDermott, some people may have stopped competing because of virus fears: Entries for the livestock shows are down about 25% overall this year, fair organizers said.

Bleachers at the Friday morning sheep shows were full of energetic supporters, and exhibitors excitedly prepared brushes and blow dryers. Several stands selling food and cups of famous state fair lemonade were open for hungry families.

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But outside of the buzz in the barns and the energetic passion of the show rings, the empty fairgrounds are unrecognizable from the packed roads of years past.

“The Iowa State Fair is a huge part of the culture and the fabric of Iowa, and it’s one that we’re all proud of,” Slater said. “If we can do a little bit of it to give people a little bit of hope in this dark time of the pandemic, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

To learn more about the Iowa State Fair or the 2020 livestock shows, visit IowaStateFair.org

Sarah LeBlanc covers trending news for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or sleblanc@registermedia.com.

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