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No Orange County Fair this summer because of coronavirus, board decides

In this 2014 photo, Sia Keys carries a giant stuffed elephant that she won in the ring toss during the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. The fair board voted unanimously Monday to cancel the 2020 fair in light of the coronavirus.
In this 2014 photo, Sia Keys carries a giant stuffed elephant that she won in the ring toss during the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. The fair board voted unanimously Monday to cancel the 2020 fair in light of the coronavirus.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

With a unanimous vote and barely a half-hour of discussion, the Orange County Fair & Event Center board decided to cancel the 2020 OC Fair in Costa Mesa because of the coronavirus.

The fair was scheduled to take place from July 17 to Aug. 16. But because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidelines for physical distancing, the board decided the fair, which last year brought nearly 1.4 million attendees, would not be able to accommodate its usual operation while preserving public health.

“It breaks my heart, it really does,” Director Robert Ruiz said. “But at the end of the day ... we don’t know what this is going to look like in two months from now, in six months from now. I would hate for an outbreak of the pandemic to come back during fair time. The number one priority for us is the safety and the well-being of the public.”

The OC Fair followed the lead of other fairs across the state, including the San Diego County Fair, which postponed its main event until next year. The OC Fair, which began in 1890, was last canceled during World War II, from 1942 to 1947.

The month-long fair was expected to generate more than $36 million in revenue through Aug. 31, including $11 million in ticket sales and $12.9 million in carnival and concession purchases, according to financial documents provided by fair officials.

A total cancellation of events and refunding money already put forth by prospective visitors and vendors could amount to a loss of nearly $12 million in proceeds, said fair spokeswoman Terry Moore.

“We’re very focused on financial planning and looking ahead to the future,” she said.

Moore said organizers are looking for ways to bring beloved fair traditions — such as livestock auctions, musical performances and competitions — to audiences through social media and other virtual outlets.

“The staff, in coordination with the board of directors, will be working on ideas to keep the fair alive, to keep as much as we can present in our guests’ mindset, as we go through the year,” CEO Michele Richards said. “What we can do online, what we can do through social media to bring joy, to bring that piece of the fair to everyone, we will be working diligently to do that.”

The Happy Train was a new ride at the 2019 kiddie carnival at the Orange County Fair.
The Happy Train was a new ride at the 2019 kiddie carnival at the Orange County Fair.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The financial effects of the closure will be felt throughout Costa Mesa, as the city foregoes sales tax revenues that would have been raised during the fair and local businesses miss out on increased commerce. Already, hotels in Costa Mesa have seen occupancy rates slashed to 10 and 15%, according to city officials.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley lives in the Mesa Del Mar neighborhood near the fairground, where residents celebrate their proximity to the festivities throughout the summer, and had to break the hard news to friends and families on Monday.

“It’s just another consequence of COVID-19, which is so unfortunate,” Foley said. “But I do think it’s the right thing to do, given the circumstances.”

The mayor highlighted the many seasonal jobs and smaller fundraising opportunities associated with the fair that will be lost, including a parking lot fundraiser that generates $100,000 annually for the Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools, and another benefiting the Costa Mesa Police Department’s Explorers program.

“These are the little things people aren’t really thinking about,” she said.

The fairgrounds recently became home to 10 trailers that the city of Costa Mesa may use as a backup option should the city need extra space to house people from its homeless population who are seniors or have underlying health conditions and may be susceptible to the coronavirus.

Chicken Charlie's griller Daniel Sandoval turns chicken kabobs for the masses on the opening day of the 2016 Orange County Fair.
Chicken Charlie’s griller Daniel Sandoval turns chicken kabobs for the masses on the opening day of the 2016 Orange County Fair.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Eileen Benjamin agreed the ripple effect of a canceled OC Fair will be felt throughout the community.

“We consider safety first, but the impacts are going to be really hard on all of those local businesses in the area,” she said.

Benjamin pointed out the Orange County Fair & Event Center partners with the city and county on several philanthropic events throughout the year that may be similarly impacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It hurts us in a lot of ways more than just the local economy, but also the good work charitably the [OCFEC] has historically done for the region,” she said.

The OC Fair is a showcase for students enrolled in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs, who painstakingly raise livestock in anticipation of bringing their animals to market at the summertime event.

Livestock sales at the 2019 fair brought in $293,609 and were estimated to hold steady, according to 2020 OC Fair budget assumptions.

Rita Jakel, a program coordinator for the Orange County 4-H, said via email Monday that members, volunteer and staff were disappointed by, but understood, the decision to cancel the fair.

“4-H youth members work hard all year to complete project-based learning under the guidance of dedicated adult volunteers,” she said. “Recognition at the OC Fair provides a reward for their efforts and, in the case of livestock, an opportunity to recover the expenses involved in raising an animal.”

It would have been the 10th year for Joe Strubbe, who raked in the most awards for his plants in last year’s fair.

He had cultivated about 25 new succulent gardens, herbs and other plants in preparation for this year’s fair, a process that he usually starts around February every year. He had a hunch the fair would be canceled, so he held off curating any collections. Last year, he entered carved eagles and miniature cottage collectibles.

“I knew it was coming, but it was still disappointing,” Strubbe said. “It occupies most of my summer.”

Tomas Garcilazo spins a lasso around his horse during the bull riding event at the 2010 Orange County Fair.
Tomas Garcilazo spins a lasso around his horse during the bull riding event at the 2010 Orange County Fair.
(Kent Treptow / Staff Photographer)

Strubbe said he plans to attend a summer family reunion in Illinois that he usually skips in favor of the fair — assuming it will still take place.

His friend Bruce Jeske, 78, entered a few dozen plants into the fair’s competition for the first time last year, after moving to Huntington Beach.

“My life’s been canceled,” he said with a chuckle, “this is the next in a series.”

Jeske had spent time this year painstakingly learning the names and categories of different plant specimens. He hoped to beat his record last year of winning 13 awards. Now, he’ll take the unexpected time to bolster his entries for next year’s fair.

“It sort of takes the wind out of the sails for getting ready for this summer and some of the plants that I had already done some planting and arranging,” Jeske said. “We’ll just do other things and start getting ready for a year plus from now!”

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