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Finding hand sanitizer by the drum is a primary necessity in planning a fair during a coronavirus crisis.

That’s just one of many unusual things that comes with a commitment to hold Montana Fair amid a “pandemic.” There’s no down time for the staff at Metra Park, as those kinds of issues come at them fast and furious. Montana Fair will go on despite the challenges of social distancing and keeping everything safe and clean as required by health officials in mitigating impacts of COVID-19. Montana Fair is planned for its normal annual dates, August 7-15, with the anticipation that the easing-off of COVID-19 restrictions will by then be in their second or third phase.

It’s not that they are moving to Plan B, says Metra Park and Montana Fair Manager Bill Dutcher. His staff was already into Plan B back in January before they were much aware of the coming COVID-19 threat. For the first time in many decades they were going to have to hold the fair without the use of the Grandstands, which are slated for removal this year. They are into Plans C and D, exclaims Dutcher, who (as would surprise no one who knows him) is rather excited about the challenge.

So how do you plan for thousands of people to attend concerts, enjoy carnival rides, view exhibits, play games and eat fair food while maintaining distance and cleanliness?

With lots and lots of planning, and some out-of-the –box –thinking. In a way, Dutcher sees this as being similar to the crisis situations faced following 9-11 or the tornado that took the roof off MetraPark’s arena. In this case, though, there are lots of other people in the same boat – “we aren’t alone,” he says.

Dutcher and crew will be watching closely what other fairs and similar events do. Fortunately, quite a number of them will have gone through the same challenge long before August rolls around and Montana Fair producers will be able to pick up pointers from them and maybe avoid some mistakes.

But no one is waiting around. Event managers and fair promoters from all across the country are already talking together, sharing ideas and collaborating. Dutcher and his team, including Assistant Manager Tim Goodridge, Marketing Director Ray Massie, and others have been in conversations with dozens of other fair people around the country.

In fact, Goodridge has already helped form a team of other fair organizers in Montana from Gallatin County, Richland County, Flathead County and including Yellowstone County’s Disaster and Emergency Services Director K. C. Williams to help develop guidelines for safe fairs in Montana. In a letter to the Governor’s office, Goodridge offered the group’s input to help establish “a planning framework on which we can move forward.”

To know what standards they should be aiming for is a first important step. While they have had some guidelines from Gov. Steve Bullock in his announcement about opening up business, they need some “specificity,” said Dutcher. They need “a directive from the Governor’s office about which phase we need to be in to hold a fair,” he said, “We don’t want to waste our time planning for a fair under phase 1 conditions and then be told, once we have invested time and money, that it will not be allowed.”

“We need to get where we need to get with planning,” said Dutcher. The fair is about a hundred days away.

Dutcher is happy that they have the firm commitment from John Hanschen of Thomas Carnival that they will be here for the fair. Thomas Carnival had already started their season through February and March, only to have events across the country cancelled in April and May. The first fair for Thomas Carnival will be in June in Bismarck, ND, which the folks at Montana Fair will be closely monitoring.

Dutcher talks weekly with Hanschen, who is spending the interim keeping some 40 employees busy cleaning, painting and refurbishing equipment. Initial plans for operating the carnival includes the possibility of scaling back the number of rides so that there is ample room to allow for safe distancing among patrons. Ride operators will wipe down amusement ride surfaces after each rider gets out of the seat. Other workers will move around the midway disinfecting all surfaces, repeatedly. Operators could wear face masks and would be checked each day regarding their health. Spaces could be marked as to where riders should stand when waiting. Other options may be pursued should it be deemed necessary to control crowd size, such as asking people to make appointments for attending the fair and distributing tickets with armbands.

The working assumption for the fair is that the First Interstate Bank Arena will not be available for performances, so discussions are underway with companies to obtain outdoor stages. Holding concerts outside will address both the scientific concerns and add psychological benefits of increasing people’s comfort levels and confidence about attending. Outside there would be space enough to designate adequate spacing for each person.

The Livestock Committee for the fair has been holding phone conferences working out ways in which exhibits and sales can still be held – such as the Junior Livestock Sale. Maybe they can move some events outside. Maybe in the Super Barn. It depends. A lot of answers depend on other answers. That’s really always been the nature of his job, muses Dutcher, his familiar Cheshire smile.

There is a lot of things that remain uncertain, including the commitment of entertainers and concerts, but, said Dutcher, the promotion company, Live Nation, has about $9 billion worth of shows on hold, and he’s confident they will be focused on working things out.

Hanging unconfirmed is whether they will be able to have a rodeo.

Also uncertain is the interest of the public and people’s willingness to attend. That too will be watched in the experiences of other fairs. But also, Metra Park’s marketing department has done a survey to determine people’s intent to attend and the most important things to them regarding the fair. “A clear-cut majority” intend to come and the two most important items cited were being outside and the availability of plenty of hand sanitizer.

So besides ordering plenty of 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer from Trailhead Spirits, Metra Parks crew is scouring the market for gallon jugs, dispensers and spray pumps, so there will be plenty of hand sanitization stations throughout the fair grounds.

Issues of health and safety are nothing new to fairs, says Dutcher, “We work on public health every year as it relates to hand-washing regarding e-Coli awareness, salmonella and other health issues that can pose risks at public events.

Part of the issue of people attending the fair is that of travel restrictions. One good thing is air fares are very low right now, and Dutcher has already booked flights for judges. Montana Fair pays for the time and costs of many of the expert judges who determine the best of the best at the fair. But, what about those who come from out of state to attend the concerts and to enjoy the fair?

The finances of it all is still an unknown – still has to be calculated. There will be some additional costs while some savings. How that comes out in the end will in large part depend on attendance.

There remains a lot of problems to solve and issues to be overcome, but there are a lot of dedicated, knowledgeable and experienced people working on it. The fair is an important event to Billings for a lot of different reasons, not least of which is the visitor spending that it brings to the local businesses, which will need it more than ever this year. And, the fair is the primary revenue generator for Metra Park, which having had several months of events cancelled already will be in dire need of that revenue.

But maybe most importantly is the reason stated in announcing their commitment to hold the fair, for the morale of the community. By August the whole community will be ready for a good fair, and Dutcher and team will be ready with Montana Fair.