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Organizers make tentative plans for a scaled-back 2021 Orange County Fair

Mason Rose plays in a splash zone at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa in 2019.
Mason Rose plays in a splash zone at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa in 2019. Organizers had to cancel this year’s fair but are hopeful a modified version might take place in 2021.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

As coronavirus cases continue to surge across the state and Orange County finds itself again under stay-at-home orders, Orange County Fair & Event Center officials are looking ahead to 2021 and envisioning a modified event that would limit crowd capacity and allow for social distancing.

The small group of organizers responsible for planning the massive O.C. Fair changed course in late April, canceling the regional attraction — which draws 1.4 million visitors each year — at the expense of $36 million in lost revenue.

Planners retooled yet again over the summer, offering a virtual O.C. Fair that allowed teens to auction livestock online and featured juried competitions where locals showed off photos of their best Zoom backgrounds, pandemic haircuts and shelter-in-place baking attempts.

The O.C. fairgrounds at Costa Mesa have since offered Fair Food Drive-Thru weekends and played host to a stream of drive-in concerts, shows and spectacles, most recently the holiday light extravaganza Night of Lights O.C. which runs through Jan. 10.

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“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that you have to stay on your toes,” fair Chief Executive Michele Richards said Tuesday. “You have to stay fluid and ready to change direction at any given moment. And, to the extent you can, you need to be able to look ahead and have lots of contingencies.”

Southern California and the Central Valley are by far the state’s biggest contributors of total COVID-19 deaths in the last week.

Now, Richards and her colleagues are daring to imagine how a 2021 O.C. Fair might look and remaining ever hopeful that, in one way or another, the show might go on.

In an Oct. 12 meeting of the O.C. Fair & Event Center Board, Richards presented a rough sketch for a modified 18-day fair that would run from July 16 through Aug. 8 and limit capacity to 30,000 visitors per day — about 50% of the event’s traditional attendance.

Richards said Tuesday that attendance level reflects the capacity of outdoor areas with six-foot social distancing in place.

Tickets would be purchased in advance, and gate transactions would be contactless, she said. Super passes would not be sold because crowd counts would have to be predetermined.

Indoor exhibits, competitions and merchants would move outdoors, and the number of concessionaires would likely be reduced, while attendance in the Pacific Amphitheatre would also be capped at 50%.

Fair officials are in talks with Orange County Health Care Agency Director and Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau, who’s helped organizers understand how state reopening guidelines could be applied to fair operations.

“When you begin to break it down into different pieces, you begin to see the possibility of a fair happening next year,” Richards said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, health officials have indicated to organizers that several criteria would have to be met for an in-person fair to take place, beginning with a widely distributed vaccine.

The first COVID-19 vaccine could arrive in California this week. Here is how officials plan to handle the first wave of vaccinations.

In a Nov. 13 session, officials looked at the center’s 2021 budget and considered the impacts of a 50%-capacity fair. Estimates place expenses at around $13.9 million and revenues as high as $20.3 million — for $6.4 million in net proceeds.

During the session, OCFEC Board Vice Chair Doug La Belle expressed cautious optimism about a modified fair, the plans for which will be formalized in the months ahead.

“Well, half a pie is better than no pie at all,” he said. “I would also suggest that we look at one-third of the pie.”

Richards acknowledged Tuesday that plans are still tentative. In a worst-case scenario, the 2021 O.C. Fair could be reconfigured into a drive-through event, she said.

“There will be something, absolutely — we will not let summer go by without some celebration of the O.C. Fair,” she said. “We understand how badly people want the fair back because we feel the same way. And we’re working to make that happen.”

Cardine writes for Times Community News.


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