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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why the Spokane County fair is still a go even as COVID-19 patients overwhelm hospitals

Rebekah and Isaiah Flock set up their tack bay for Rebekah’s goat entry Thursday at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center. The Spokane Interstate Fair starts on Friday.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In the past month, as COVID-19 hospitalizations have climbed to record highs and overwhelmed the Inland Northwest’s largest medical centers, several much-anticipated events have been canceled.

Pig Out in the Park, Spokane’s six-day food and music festival, was canceled in mid-August. Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament, followed suit a couple of weeks later. Organizers of Valleyfest, one of Spokane Valley’s biggest annual events, announced their decision to cancel on Sept. 1.

Organizers of each event emphasized that guidance from the Spokane Regional Health District helped them make their decisions.

The health district has been meeting repeatedly with Spokane County Interstate Fair representatives, too. But the fair, which typically sees about 200,000 visitors, is still happening Sept. 10-19.

Dr. Francisco Velázquez, the health district’s interim health officer, said the district works with all major events to help them comply with state requirements and reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Recommendations vary based on a variety of factors, Velázquez said, but he said the health district’s recent recommendations have been similar for all large, outdoor events.

“At the end of the day it is their decision to move forward or not,” Velázquez said. “We don’t tell them what to do; we provide them as much guidance as we can.”

Per state law, local health officers have the authority to cancel events. Former Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz used that authority in March 2020 to force the cancellation of the Washington Middle School Basketball Championship.

But Spokane County Commissioner Al French defended the county’s decision to hold the fair during a Tuesday meeting.

“It’s a highlight for the rural areas of the county, and if you follow all the protocols it’s going to be as safe as going to the grocery store,” French said. “If you feel like there’s too much risk, don’t show up. We can’t regulate everything in everybody’s lives.”

County commissioners said the fair has made changes that will mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The fair will be safe, they said.

“There’s been a lot of events and experiences that have been taken from us this year,” County Commissioner Josh Kerns said. “I think we’ve found a way to give our citizens an opportunity to have a good time and to do it safely.”

The fair is encouraging people to attend on weekdays, when crowds will be smaller. Staff have also set up additional seating areas and spread them out to help improve social distancing. Building and vendor layouts have been rearranged for social distancing purposes, too. The health district recommended most, if not all, of those changes.

County commissioner Mary Kuney noted that capacity will be reduced by roughly 50% for the fair’s grandstand events.

Kuney said she thinks the county fair is different from Hoopfest and Pig Out in the Park.

“We have 97 acres for people to spread out at the fairgrounds,” she said. “That’s a whole different scenario from the other venues when you’re packing people in the streets.”

Both Kuney and Kerns pointed out that other large events throughout the state are still happening.

The state fair in Puyallup is still happening Sept. 3-26. Fans are still attending Mariners games and college football games. Other county fairs throughout the state are carrying on, they said.

According to the Washington Department of Health, there have been five superspreader events in the last six weeks. Two of them were county fairs – in Grant and Whatcom counties. The Omak Stampede, a rodeo, was also a superspreader event. Music festivals at Bass Canyon and Watershed also led to hundreds of COVID-19 infections.

Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Thursday, masks will be required at outdoor events with 500 or more people.

That means starting Monday, fair attendees – regardless of vaccination status – will have to wear masks outdoors. Masks had already been required indoors. Prior to Inslee’s announcement, the fair had been encouraging, but not requiring, masks outdoors.

Inslee said the mandate is to “keep people from dying.”

It’s essential that people wear masks and get vaccinated in order to keep the economy open, Inslee said.

If people ignore the mask requirement and the vaccination rate doesn’t improve, capacity restrictions might be coming.

“We’re taking nothing off the table,” Inslee said. “We can’t eliminate things we might have to do in the future.”

Inslee specifically noted Spokane County’s low vaccination rate.

“Not enough people in Spokane County have become vaccinated,” he said. “When we get enough people to get vaccinated in Spokane County, we’ll be able to drop these mask requirements.”

Reporters Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich contributed to this story.