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Safety, financial factors play in Erie County Fair's 'tough' decision to postpone

The Erie County Agricultural Society, for only the second time in the history of the Erie County Fair, has postponed the "best 12 days of summer" until 2021. 

Officials hosted a news conference late Thursday morning explaining their decision, and revealed that other nearby county fairs will also not be held this summer.

Marty Biniasz of the Erie County Agricultural Society explained that after the news broke late Wednesday afternoon of the fair's postponement, Society members participated in a conference call with representatives of other fairs. He read statements on behalf of some of the other Agricultural Societies who have also called off their 2020 events. As of Thursday morning the Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee and Wyoming County Fairs had been officially postponed until 2021.

"Fairs are a lot of things. We are concert venues. We are amusement midways, we're food festivals, we're art galleries, we're museums. We're centers for youth development and centers for agricultural education, just to name a few," he said. "But first and foremost, we're community. And at times like this, we do what's best for the community, even though difficult and emotional decisions might be made."

Public health concerns and financial uncertainties factored in their decision. Jessica Underberg, fair manager and chief executive officer of the Agricultural Society, explained that financial factors include vendor contracts. She noted that Strates Shows, the Florida-based company which has provided the midway rides for the Erie County Fair since 1924, has lost bookings during the pandemic. That raises questions as to whether they might deem it financially worthwhile to travel for just one event.

"We've also, as a staff, sat down to discuss if social distancing measures are still in place in August. What does that mean for the fair, and obviously, there's a financial impact to that because we assume that our attendance would be down," she said. "Couple that with extra measures of PPE, extra staffing, more bodies would be needed to do all of that stuff. It becomes out of balance."

Underberg struggled to hold back tears while admitting the feelings of administrators who decided to put off this year's festivities.

"This isn't just a job. This is our passion," she said.

What fair organizers still plan to conduct, however, are the 4-H youth competitions which would bring nearly 170 market animals raised by the participants. Underberg pointed out that virtual options are available but, as she explained, "nothing replaces stepping into that show ring with that 12-hundred-pound steer." Fair organizers anticipate hosting competitions that would be closed to the public and exercising social distancing guidelines. It would also likely be scaled down from ten days to two or three.

Full refunds will be issued for 12-day passes. To receive money back, purchasers are asked to send their passes, along with the name and address of who is receiving the refund, to the fair offices at 5600 McKinley Parkway, Hamburg, New York 14075. Underberg explained that fairground offices are closed due to the pandemic, thus refunds will not be issued on site.

The last time the Erie County Fair was postponed was in 1943, in the midst of World War II, as a means to support the rationing of gasoline and other commodities deemed important for the war effort.

Three years ago, a tornado swept through the fairgrounds just 20 days before its scheduled opening. Fair staff rallied to get the grounds ready and that year's event closed with its second-highest attendance to date. Underberg was asked about the hopes for a big turnout in 2021.

"The difference between those things and this, is that when that tornado was over, we looked around and went 'Holy cats. All right, let's go. It's done.' When the war was over, it was done. The problem is we don't know when this is done," she said. "We can't see it. We can't feel it. We can't touch it. And we don't know when it's over. And we had to make decisions yesterday based on the information we have today, not what we hope the scenario will be in August."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.