Two people walk along the midway at the Union County Fairgrounds early Wednesday evening. Traditionally a midweek photo of the midway during the fair would show food stands, carnival games, rides and scores of people. This year, however, with the coronavirus limiting activities, the only real action was found in the barns and show arena, where junior fair activities were held with increased safety precautions. (Journal-Tribune photo by Chad Williamson)
For Bayleigh Miller, this was to be her year.
Earlier this week, the 16-year-old was named 2020 Union County Fair Queen. She was to lead royalty tours and be front and center of packed show arenas. She was to greet buyers at the annual livestock auction. She was to pose for pictures and be an ambassador for the thousands coming to the fair.
But this year, her ninth as part of the fair, isn’t what Miller, or anyone, expected.
The COVID-19 outbreak has changed much of the world, including fairs.
The midway is bare. There are no rides and limited food vendors. Barns are at half capacity and the animals aren’t staying long. Show crowds are sparse, limited to parents and grandparents of those involved.
“When I lead the tours with other royalty, I have to tell them, ‘It usually isn’t like this. Usually our barns are full,” Miller said.
She said the barns are usually full of animals and the grounds are full people. But not this year.
“It has been really different,” Miller said. “Walking around the fair, you don’t see as many people.”
This was also to be a big year for Keagan Nicol. This was his 11th and final year showing at the fair.
“This year is just a lot different,” said Nicol, who has spent the last four years serving on the Jr. Fair Board.
Nicol said fair board members usually conduct quality assurance seminars, required for each animal exhibitor to ensure animals are treated correctly and their meat is safe. He said those seminars were all held digitally. He said work meetings with fellow board members were also done remotely.
But he said it was the actual fair that was most different. He said the barns were empty, shows were smaller and the classes were smaller. Even a show staple, the post-competition handshake and thank you for the judge were different — now a fist bump or possibly gone altogether.
Sariah Bates and her siblings show rabbits. This was Sariah’s seventh year with the project. She has also been heavily involved in special interest projects. She said for her, it was different not having her and others’ special projects on display.
Nicol said there is a social aspect of the fair that was different as well.
“It’s always nice to catch up with people you don’t see every day or sometimes only at the fair and you can’t even hardly recognize them,” Nicol said.
Nicol said he would have been able to sell his dairy feeder back to the breeder if the fair didn’t happen, an opportunity not all exhibitors would have had. He said it was nice to have that option because so much about the fair was unknown, even in the final days leading up to it.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have a fair,” Nicol said. “We were grateful to have that back-up plan but we were even more grateful to have a fair to show at.”
Nicol said the willingness to work, even if there is no promised reward is a hallmark of fair participants.
“We all put in a lot of hard work, months of work,” Nicol said. “Not even knowing if we were having a fair, we all had the responsibility to go ahead and raise our animals.”
Miller said she too decided to adjust. She said the altered fair gave her opportunities.
“I feel like I can use this as a way to explore things past queens haven’t done,” Miller said. “It is different, but I am going to make the most of what we have.”
She added, “I am just glad and appreciate that we are able to have a fair this year.”
As different as this year’s fair was, that refrain was the same from nearly all the participants.
“Even though it is different, I am still having a blast and I am glad we are still having it,” Bates said.
Nicol called this year’s fair “awesome.”
“Although it may not have been the way we planned it, I am just grateful to be able to have it,” he said.
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