City Council suggests "stripped down" Fair Board Lease; 2020 Fair Cancelled

by Charles Gerian

UPDATE: The Free Fair Board met Tuesday night to reject the Council's suggestion. The 2020 Kay County Fair has been cancelled.

The Blackwell City Council met Thursday night to discuss the fate of the Kay County Free Fair, which takes place annually during the second week of September. The Council decided that the fair may be conducted, but that it may offer only livestock shows and a total of 12 food vendors.

Jake Kahle, the president of the fair board, spoke to the Council. He presented the fair board's plan, which was to conduct a "scaled back" carnival Thursday, Friday, and Saturday during the week of the fair. Livestock exhibitions would take place Tuesday and Wednesday, and food vendors would be socially distanced across the Midway Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

"It's not going to be like usual," Kahle said, "but we want to give the people something.”

The Council, led by Vice Mayor Steve Marquardt in place of Mayor Glenn Cox, then heard from Dr. Jeffrey Shuart of Stillwater Medical Center, the company operating the local hospital. Shuart pleaded with the Council not to allow the fair’s traditional carnival aspect to be conducted.

Shuart, a doctor with 30 years of experience, told the Council that six Blackwell residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past week. One of them is his office nurse. Shuart said one Blackwell citizen died of the coronavirus in the past week.

"This is a massive pandemic," Shuart said. "I'd recommend waiting until November, December ... maybe spring ... maybe just wait until next year. I'm less worried about the kids showing livestock than about those kids going home to show grandma their ribbon from showing ... and grandma getting [infected].

"The only thing I can do is to try and protect my community.”

Dr. Shuart heard from members of the Council, including Tom Beliel and Jon Webb.

Webb said there is still much confusion related to COVID-19. He said he had heard the Centers for Disease Control recommended against the wearing of masks. Webb said it isn't his place to tell people whether to come to the fair or not. He compared the dangers of COVID-19 to crossing the street and risking being hit by a car.

The CDC, however, does recommend wearing face masks now, information on the agency’s website shows.

Blackwell Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Cory Hanebrink also addressed the Council. Hanebrink attended the fair board’s meeting in late July, where he cautioned the board about conducting the fair in a traditional format. Hanebrink noted that this would be "[Blackwell's] biggest fair yet."

Hanebrink presented a list of local festivals and events that have been cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus. He warned that the 2020 fair would attract "everyone" from Oklahoma and Kansas. He mentioned that condensing the crowd into three days would also be detrimental.

With no clear "entrance" to the fairgrounds, Hanebrink told the fair board and the City Council that it would be nearly impossible to try and check the temperatures of fair-goers and control crowd movements.

"I spoke to some coaches today,” he said. “I have to confirm, but … they told me that sports games will be played with no crowds. These seniors will have to play football, and their parents can't even be there to cheer them on in-person. If this fair was held and we had another outbreak ... that would ruin their season completely.”

Webb said it is a person’s choice whether to attend the fair or not.

Chief of Police Dewayne Wood disagreed, noting that some city employees had no choice about whether to attend the event. Wood asked Council members to remember city staff when deciding whether to conduct the fair.

Officers with the Blackwell Police Department are used as security workers at the fair, and Wood was concerned for their safety against the virus as well, he said.

Councilman Richard Braden noted that it becomes “not [our] choice when I do something that brings people here and gets other people sick.”

Kay County Commissioner Jason Shanks then approached the Council, saying he had “looked at the data.”

“0.4% of the population has had COVID,” he said. “And of that, they could have been asymptomatic. Tulsa's supposed to be the ‘hot bed.’ … They're trying to cancel the state fair there. … They're 1.4%. That's not very many people. My son and I, we show cattle. I think we have the right. If you want to show up, show up. If you're scared. … I don't think you have to show up. If grandma and grandpa want to come, they can come.”

Shanks also said he doesn't believe guests should wear masks or have their temperatures checked.

“As far as the carnival goes, I'd think about the sales tax if I were you guys,” he said. “If it's going to be big, make it big.”

City Manager Janet Smith spoke to Kahle, the fair board president, about various revisions to the fair board's annual lease agreement for the fairgrounds. City Attorney Bryce Kennedy offered his input, noting that the City of Blackwell would not allow the fair board to lease the Event Center, 4-H building, or the respective "green zones" for each building. The fair board also would not be permitted to lease the grounds that are used almost exclusively used for carnival rides, games, and ticket booths.

That would leave the fair board working only with the livestock pavilion, Whitman Arena, horse arena, and the Midway.

Kahle said the board had encouraged the 12 food vendors to promote "to-go" orders, eliminating benches, chairs, and areas where attendees could congregate.

Kahle will take the Council's ruling back to the fair board to be voted on.

Also discussed at the meeting was an ordinance banning the discharge of fireworks within the city limits.

Hanebrink said he was simply asking to stop aerial fireworks from being discharged in the city limits. He is not “stopping all fireworks,” he said. He suggested that a location in town could be designated for people to go light off “bigger fireworks.”

After some discussion, the ordinance was approved.