ST PAUL, Minn — On a rainy Thursday, just under 62,000 people attended the Minnesota State Fair's opening day — less than half than the same day two years ago.
More than 133,000 people attended the fair's last opening day in 2019, setting a new record for the fair's first Thursday. After the fair was canceled in 2020, some vendors didn't know what to expect.
"We ramped up on product, and we thought it would be busier than two years ago," said Ann Benson, owner of the Pickle Dog stand. "But yesterday, because the first day was rainy... sales were down, way down. We don't know, was it the rain or was it COVID?"
For those who did attend, the weather put a damper on some attractions. Officials temporarily evacuated the Grandstand and shut down all rides for the night over lightning concerns.
Between the weather and growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, the lowered attendance numbers of 2021 came as no surprise to many.
In fact, fair organizers urged people to "make an informed decision" and consider their own COVID-19 risks before deciding whether to attend. The fair stopped short of a mask or vaccine mandate and opted to "strongly encourage" masking up indoors and in outdoor crowds.
Citing the lack of a mandate, rock band Low Cut Connie dropped out of the fair's entertainment lineup days in advance.
About 150 vendors dropped out of the 2021 fair. According to the Associated Press, that's about double the usual number — but another 70 vendors joined the ranks. The fair's website still lists an impressive 950 vendors for 2021.
In a COVID-19 media briefing call Friday, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said events like the fair are "risky environments" when it comes to COVID-19. However, officials won't have data on likely transmission at the fair until it's over.
For now, vendors are hoping for dryer weather.
"I think it's going to turn around," said Gary Wunderlich, whose stand selling brats has been in business for decades. While his sales for Thursday were lower than normal, he said his stand had a record stint at the Wisconsin State Fair last week.