After a missed year, Alaska State Fair vendors say things feel almost normal, despite pandemic risk

People walk through the Alaska State Fair grounds in Palmer - some masked, some not. Ferris wheel in the background
Fairgoers, some of whom wore masks, walk between vendor booths at the Alaska State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Even mid-morning on a Thursday, the Alaska State Fair was bustling with activity. Swinging, whirling amusement park rides were filled with thrill-seeking children and their acquiescent parents, teenagers perused tie-dye stands and the smell of every type of fried food wafted through the fair’s busy corridors. 

The 2020 Alaska State Fair was canceled due to COVID-19 risk. This year, you’d hardly know there’s a pandemic, said some vendors.

“I was really kind of curious what to expect with COVID going on, and everything else with the delta variant. But it has been pretty normal,” James Strong, owner of Sweet Caribou macarons, said from behind the counter of his booth near the south entrance. 

This is Strong’s fifth year at the fair. When the Anchorage-based Sweet Caribou was starting out, the fair made up a big chunk of sales. But now it’s more a marketing opportunity, a chance to talk to people and debut new flavors. This year’s is sour lime and raspberry.

A man with Macorons sitting in his booth
James Strong, owner of Sweet Caribou, poses for a photo in his booth at the Alaska State Fair. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media )

Strong said he wasn’t too worried about the coronavirus risk this year because he’s had COVID-19 and is vaccinated. But he joked grimly that anyone who is concerned about the virus shouldn’t come.

“I’m sure that cases for the state will not go down for the next three weeks, while the fair is going on,” he said. “I assume at some point it will spread through everyone here. I just don’t see a way around it when you gotta pack 10,000 people in here and cram them in here. Like last Saturday, I mean, you couldn’t move.”

The Alaska State Fair averages 300,000 visitors each year, according to CEO Jerome Hertel. That’s about 40% of the state’s population, and it’s more people than turn out to vote some years. In an effort to spread out the crowds, Hertel said, the fair is taking place over three weekends this year, instead of two.

Face masks are encouraged but not required at the fair. Very few people wore one on Thursday. Alaska is in the throes of a major surge of coronavirus cases, with the state on Thursday reporting its highest daily tally of COVID-19 cases of the year. Hospitals across the state are also strained, including in the Mat-Su, where all 14 of the borough’s ICU beds are filled as of Friday, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

At the fair, people don’t seem too stressed about the virus, said Tiffany Jackson, who serves milkshakes and Italian sodas at a 1950’s-themed soda fountain called The Alaskan Soda Jerk.

“I mean, people are here,” she said. “So if they’re here, I don’t think that they’re really too worried. I don’t think that the organizers, the vendors or anybody else is very worried either. As long as people are being smart and safe, there’s no reason to be closed.” 

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The Soda Jerk caters and works events at the fairgrounds throughout the summer. Jackson calls each event a “show.”

“We’ve got poodle skirts for the ladies. The guys wear blue jeans, a white button up and a bow tie,” she said, adding that she’s occasionally worked a shift on roller skates. “We’re really loud, we’re really out there.”

a person poses from behind a state fair vendor booth
Tiffany Jackson, manager at the Soda Jerk. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Jackson, who grew up going to this fair with her family, said it was sad to miss out on the experience last summer. It was also a big hit to business, she said.

“The fair is a very small portion of the summer, it’s the last two weeks, but it’s close to half what we make,” she said. 

Things didn’t feel as busy as usual, Jackson said on Thursday, but with sunny weather forecasted this weekend, she expected crowds will pick up.

Further down the row, Cathleen Gordon took a break scooping ice cream at Cornucopia Cones, which she’s owned with her husband since 1983. In nearly 40 years working the fair in her same booth, she said, this year has been a new challenge. 

“​​We just decided to do masks in our booth. And we didn’t put napkin dispensers on the front counter. You know, we’re just trying to be careful,” she said, adding that she’s seen hardly any visitors wearing masks. 

Two women in ice cream shop at the Alaska State Fair
Cathleen Gordon, (left) owner of Cornucopia Cones with her co-worker Debbie Bentti, (right). (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Over the years Gordon said, she’s gotten to know her “neighborhood” of nearby vendors. This year though, there are a lot of new booths on her corridor. 

“It was [COVID] partly,” she said of the turnover. “And people are aging. You know, some of the people that retired were like, ‘I’m getting old enough already.’ I even told my husband, ‘I’m getting too old for this!’”

CEO Hertel said there are about 100 new vendors this year. He said some businesses from previous years were hit by labor shortages and others from the Lower 48 had difficulty coming through Canada with border restrictions. Others took another year off due to COVID, he said.

“There were some that were a little uncomfortable, still a little uncomfortable, about setting up and operating their business,” he said. 

Hertel said fair organizers were also concerned about COVID risk, but opted to move forward with the new, longer schedule and preventive measures like sanitizing stations, free masks and one-way traffic in indoor areas. Also, he noted, the fair is primarily outdoors. 

“We consulted with the Department of Health, and an outdoor event is one of the safest events you can attend. We have 300 acres here of ground. And so there’s an opportunity for people to social distance,” Hertel said. “So we felt pretty good about that.”

Girl with face paint and pigtails with her mom on a ferris wheel
Two people take a ride on the ferris wheel at the Alaska State Fair. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

This weekend, livestock, horticulture and arts and crafts exhibits will be on display at the fairgrounds in Palmer. Lumberjack and motorcycle shows, plus as a concert series, are in store as well.

The state fair encourages masking and is asking anyone with symptoms to stay home. The fair runs through Sept. 6.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.

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