Going to the Georgia State Fair this week, you could almost imagine you were in a happier time before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Crowds seemed to move with little regard for social distancing as they walked from attraction to attraction. A stage was set up in preparation for a rock concert later in the evening. People screamed as they got jostled around on rides.
That’s not to say nothing had changed, though. Fair staff stood outside with thermometers to check foreheads before people could walk through the gate. Signs were posted encouraging people to keep six feet apart. Hand sanitizer stations were located across the fairgrounds. Nearly half of the people in attendance were wearing masks.
Anthony Blackwell and Bob Hill from Florida, who travel with their “Puppettone Rockers” puppet show to different fairs across the area, were there performing for the week. Blackwell said he didn’t feel worried about the safety of the fair.
“I think it’s great to see people getting on enjoying themselves,” he said. “As long as people are out here washing their hands, following the rules, I don’t see why there’s any reason we can’t be out here doing this.”
Hill, whose show is in its 42nd year of performing, said that while he could acknowledge the risk of larger crowds, he felt undeterred.
“Well, you look around and you see crowds are here; I’m sure it’s more dangerous,” he said, “but other than that, it’s great to get out. Everybody’s tickled to be doing something.”
This is the 17th annual holding of this iteration of the state fair, although Georgia has had some form of a “state fair” for over 100 years. In the early years of the 20th century, it was held in Macon.
The fair, in many ways, is the last event of its size left standing in the state. The North Georgia State Fair, held annually in Cobb, decided to cancel festivities earlier in the year. Other concerts, events, and festivals around the state have also decided to forgo this year in light of the pandemic.
Fair worker Amanda Eisenhower felt it was important for Georgians to restore some sense of normalcy to their lives.
“It’s a good response to the economy,” she said. “People are getting out here, bringing their kids. They’ve been cooped up for months; it’s better to be here than on the streets.”
Kaylee Davis from McDonough said the fair has been a welcome break from quarantine for her and her son.
“I feel good; it’s been pretty open,” she said. “I have my mask on. We had planned on it and my son is 6, so this is fun for him.”
Chaunessy Walker of McDonough said even though she was worried, she decided to brave the crowd and attend so she could get out of the house. But she wasn’t happy with what she saw when she arrived.
“I mean, nobody is really wearing masks out here,” she said. “They may have hand sanitizer, but it’s like water.”
She said President Donald Trump’s recent diagnosis of COVID-19 last weekend illustrates why it’s important to take the pandemic seriously.
“People really need to be more cautious about COVID, because it’s serious out here,” she said. “I’m really sorry for his family, but I’m definitely not happy with how he’s led. He needs to get better before he starts saying there’s a cure or something.”
Hill, however, believes the president still has good prospects with the election less than a month away.
“We’ve got a strong president; it looks like he’s going to recover,” he said. “We certainly need him, we want him to be healthy. There’s no question about it that he’s going to win re-election; the Democrats are hoping people are stupid.”
Susan Powers from Stockbridge shared a similar view.
“I hope he gets better — anybody that catches that, I pray for him,” he said. “I don’t think him catching COVID has anything to do with his presidency, and I think he’s going to be president again.”
As of 2:50 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8, 327,407 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the state of Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Of those, 7,294 people have died.
But those numbers, statistics, and the horror for the past several months felt strange and discarded in the fair grounds. The pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, and even if the decision to attend or hold the event was questionable in the wake of public health advisors, some people like Lorna Smith of Decatur just needed to know the world was still here.
“We just needed to get out of the house, see the world again,” she said. “This is what Georgia is about. Maybe it can still be about that.”