The Minnesota State Fair’s Pandemic Pivot for 2020

The Great Minnesota Get-Together is canceled, but there’s still a lot happening
Minnesota State Fair Cup
You can still get State Fair cups and beer—if you know where to look.

Courtesy Minnesota State Fair

The Minnesota State Fair is pretty much all things. Nostalgic but also trend-forward, invigorating but also exhausting, affordable but also expensive, homogenous but also diverse, a sprint but also a marathon, urban but also rural, livestock but also live music, corn dog but also pronto pup. For 12 days in late summer, its collective consumption ranks right up there with air.

In 2020, that air got let out by COVID-19. By the time the announcement came in May, health-related cancellations and closings had become a daily occurrence. And as much smaller operations struggle to safely reopen during a pandemic, it was a foregone conclusion. “Can you see social distancing on a Park & Ride bus, or at the Bandshell? One at a time on the Giant Slide? Can you imagine standing 6 feet apart in line for cookies?” wondered Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager. “Me neither.”

Even if canceling the fair for the first time since 1946’s polio epidemic was “the only decision,” that reality has set in more as summer winds on. Some rightfully say society has greater concerns right now than mini donut-flavored beer. As recent marches formed large crowds for the first time in months, we’re reminded that people badly need ways to come together—especially in the time of COVID-19. Social activism has operated adjacent to the fair before, from protests to seed art. At its best, the fair is a rare opportunity to share space with family, friends, and neighbors across ages, cultures, lifestyles, and beliefs, and for that it will be sorely missed.

For the people who don’t go, the fair is still a bookend, and a last gasp before the leisure of summer gives way to a more austere autumn. Minnesota State Fair season has its own patterns for automotive traffic and for small talk. (“Going to the fair?”) With our local TV and radio stations basically living there—to say nothing of the colossal social media impact—the din and commotion is inescapable. See a video from the Miracle of Birth Center, a pic of hundreds filing past the Midway, or kids hugging mascot Fairchild, and deep-ingrained sensory responses take over.

A whole lot of people do go to the fair. Attendance topped 2 million in both 2018 and 2019. A lot of people also go to work—from the Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar stands to the rides. They all add up to about 12,000 full-time, seasonal, and part-time jobs, and $268 million in economic impact for the Twin Cities, according to 2018 figures.

Those 2 million people are the target audience for marketing of all persuasions. It’s a place for vendors to sell posters, politicians to campaign for votes, and a certain local real estate agent to conquer the local airspace with a “guaranteed offer” banner tied to the back of a plane.

The Grandstand, the Fine Arts Building, and the butter sculptures only begin to hint at the artistic creativity at play. Oh, and did we mention the food? You’re never far away from a Fresh French Fries stand, an international delicacy, or the utterly absurd new thing on a stick to post on Instagram. We know we’ll miss the fair in 2020, but we won’t know exactly how until the time arrives.

And yet. The Minnesota State Fair website posted a long FAQ on its website when this year’s festivities were officially canceled. Tucked at the bottom was reason to still dream. “Do you have plans to do a virtual or drive-thru fair?” The answer: “Stay tuned!” And, since then, fair organizers and other concerned citizens have dreamed up an increasing list of workarounds.

Fair Food Finder Facebook Group

The Minnesota State Fair never claimed to be the only source of sweet, savory, and deep-fried goodness, but has reliably been the place to check as many boxes as possible. Lori Lexvold created an online forum and Google Map to link up fair food vendors and fans. Find lots more info about Fair Food Finder here. Many local businesses have gotten creative to take part. Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater will pour mini donut and key lime pie beers during State Fair Week. Blue Barn launched the Little Blue Food Truck. Birchwood Cafe is serving up BLTs you’d get at the Minnesota Farmers Union Coffee Shop booth.

Plus: Jason DeRusha runs down even more State Fair beer options.

Minnesota State Fair Cups

Those familiar branded cups are available for purchase from the fair in sleeves of 50 through July 28.

Fine Arts Exhibition of Minnesota

The state fair’s Fine Arts competition has evolved to include a virtual component, and will still host in-person gallery showings in the Fine Arts Center at the fairgrounds at limited capacity. Dates are Thursday, August 27, through Labor Day, September 7, and tickets are $10.

Princess Kay of the Milky Way Butter Sculptures 

Yes, butter sculpting is still on. The freshly crowned Princess Kay and all nine of her attendants will be chiseled in butter between August 13 and August 22. Watch the action on the Princess Kay Facebook page.

A question regarding the status of entries into non-animal competitions—from fine arts to science—yields more speculation. The answer: “We are exploring options.”

Minnesota State Fair Food Parade

A drive-thru like no other takes over the fairgrounds August 20-23, August 27-30, and September 3-7. For $20 per car, you get access to 16 vendors, including Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, Mouth Trap Cheese Curds, Fresh French Fries, and Tom Thumb Donuts. Lots more on that endeavor right here.

These options are just what has been announced thus far. Who knows what else could be coming before late August arrives? By that time, this barrage of stunts could fully recalibrate the way we see the Minnesota State Fair when we can safely get back together. So we are tuned and staying that way.

In sum: You are gone but not forgotten in 2020, Minnesota State Fair. And we’ve already got August 26 to September 6, 2021, blocked off on our calendar.