HARRINGTON — With most of the attendees not wearing facemasks, it was easy to see the broad smiles of the families and individuals coming through the main gates during the opening day of the 102nd Delaware State Fair on Thursday.
With just about all COVID-19 restrictions lifted by Gov. John Carney’s order on July 13, the state fair is expecting larger crowds, live music and, generally, a much more festive mood over the next 10 days than last year’s state fair — done with crowd restrictions, mandated face masks and social distancing due to the pandemic.
It didn’t hurt that the temperatures remained in the low-80s all day, making it near-perfect conditions for buying tickets and jumping on a ride in the Wade Shows’ Midway, watching the Hollywood Racing Pigs, perusing the barns and looking at the animals or hanging out for the evening’s “Welcome Back to Live Entertainment Free Concert” at the M&T Bank Grandstand.
For the most part, the vibe around the Delaware State Fairgrounds all felt a little bit retro pre-pandemic.
“We thought we earned our stripes last year by holding a fair, one of the only state fairs to have been conducted during the height of the pandemic,” said Bill DiMondi, general manager of the state fair. “But this year, I’ve got to be honest, has been even more of a challenge.
“Just the notion of hiring personnel, getting them in place, and not knowing quite what this patron-base is going to throw at us is tough. If we revert back to 300,000-plus people coming to visit the fair over the next 10 days we’re ready for it, we’re welcoming of their efforts and their presence here on the grounds — all of the exhibitors, the volunteers, and everybody else.”
Jim Correll, president of the Delaware State Grange, said his organization was forced to skip last year’s fair due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. He said this year feels a little like a family reunion flavored with tasty chicken and ham platters.
“It’s good,” said Mr. Correll. “We kind of missed coming down here last year and missing a large source of revenue for the State Grange. Last year hurt us a lot, so we’re glad to come back and serve the public. We’re looking for a good year and hoping people come out and enjoy a good dinner.
“Everybody really seems to enjoy coming down and working together and enjoying the fellowship and just doing their thing.”
The sights, sounds and smells — from fried-food cooking, burgers sizzling, and yes, even emanating from the barn stalls — signaled the state fair was back to normal.
“I’m so happy we don’t have to wear a mask outside anymore,” said Dawn Richmond, walking though the midway with her two young daughters at her side. “These two have been really itching to get out and do something fun so I thought, ‘Why not? It’s a gorgeous day. Let’s go out to the state fair.’
“I know how much I loved experiencing the fair when I was their age. There’s a little bit of something for everyone out here.”
David Jones has served as one of the directors of the state fair for the past 49 years. He is more than happy to go back to the future — especially after last year.
“It’s wonderful,” Mr. Jones said. “We were here last year but it was not the same. You couldn’t do the same things that we’re doing this year and I’m glad we’re back to normal. I’m looking for a great crowd and I suspect that we’ll have a good-sized crowd.”
Mr. Jones said that family bonds are made closer at the state fair.
“The state fair just gets in your blood,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s such a family event. I remember as a child my mother used to take me to the fair and would just turn me loose. She didn’t worry about me. She didn’t have to worry about me … and the same thing is true today. That’s a credit to this organization.
“It’s a family thing and our pricing is meant to keep the prices down as low as we can. For a family of four, if they had to pay parking on top of the admission fee it’d get kind of tough on the pocketbook, but we do the best that we can.”
Mr. DiMondi said that state fair opening day is usually unique in that it is the day when the community-based organization usually hears its most complaints.
“While on this journey to improvement we seek help and encouragement along the way,” he said. “Criticism comes fast and furious sometimes here at the fair, especially during the first day of the fair.
“But most of the time we hear things like, ‘You know, your $9 gate is about $8 too high.’ ‘You know, your concert lineup is really a huge disappointment and I’m not coming back to a show in the M&T Bank Grandstand until you bring Garth Brooks here.’ Or even, ‘I’m not showing my cattle here at the Delaware State Fair until you decide to air condition the Quillen Arena.’”
He said taking the heat is all a part of putting on a really large event — and one that has lasted more than a century.
“With 102 fairs under our belts it’s pretty fair to say that as an institution with six officers and 80 directors that we receive a fair amount of input, feedback, and sometimes outward criticism of how we conduct Delaware’s single largest outdoor event, drawing as many as 300,000 people to this loyal ZIP code of 19952,” said Mr. DiMondi.
Perhaps the largest among of complaints that fair officials have received this year is lack of a huge headliner in their musical lineup at the M&T Bank Grandstand.
“We’ve got a little bit of a COVID-19 hangover this year,” he said. “Our lineup leaves a lot to be desired, but we had to make a financial decision early in the spring to unhook from some of the larger artists that they themselves weren’t even sure that they were going to go on the road and commit to touring here in Harrington.
“We had to reset things a bit but we’re glad to be back.”
Judging by those many smiles entering the front gates of the fair on Thursday, they are too.