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Smaller crowds attend NY State Fair opening weekend

The midway at the New York State Fair
Tom Magnarelli
Small crowds walked the midday at the New York State Fair this weekend.

The first ever weekend of an 18-day New York State Fair has pulled in smaller crowds than fair officials are used to seeing. The past few days averaged below 40,000 visitors compared to record numbers in 2019, averaging more than 80,000 in the first three days.

But fair officials really weren’t sure what kind of attendance they were going to get, with recent surges in COVID-19.

Fair Director Troy Waffner said you can’t compare attendance at the 2021 edition of the exposition in Syracuse with any other.

"The state fair never shut down during a pandemic and then had to open up while the pandemic was still going on, for all practical purposes," Waffner said.

And while the specter of catching COVID-19 keeps some fairgoers away, it isn’t top of mind of those who are visiting. Some said they have their masks, are vaccinated and feel good.

There are many ways the fair is different during a pandemic. Buildings are emptier than normal, if they are open at all. COVID concerns and difficulties getting employees have forced some of the usual fair draws, especially among food vendors, to pull out. And this is the first year there are five extra days to what is a now 18-day fair. That all combines to make it unchartered territory.

But the sounds, smells and many fair favorites are still available. Waffner said he’s not concerned about attendance levels that were breaking records before the pandemic. He emphasized he doesn’t want anyone who’s uncomfortable with crowds or worried about COVID-19 to come to the fair.

But for anyone who feels safe and takes precautions, his sense after talking to fairgoers is they find it a chance to emerge from a long pandemic haze, if only for a day.

"I think there is a pent-up demand for something to do,” Waffner said. “And we can bemoan the crowds and surge in cases if that ever happens. But people have been locked up for 15 months and they’re really looking for an opportunity to go out and enjoy themselves, and get back to some sense of normality."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.