Kelsie Vose of Vose Fine Foods discusses how the 2021 Illinois State Fair is going so far. Last year’s fair was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BRENDEN MOORE SPRINGFIELD — After a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois State Fair returned to the capital city this weekend, offering a semblance of normalcy
SPRINGFIELD — After a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois State Fair returned to the capital city this weekend, offering a semblance of normalcy amid abnormal times.
Thousands packed the fairgrounds on the north end of Springfield, drawn by headliner musical acts such as Kane Brown and Toby Keith, the sweet aroma of fair food, thrilling carnival rides and annual attractions like the butter cow.
After an untimely thunderstorm washed out many opening day activities Thursday, the weather took a nice turn with clear skies throughout the weekend. Temperatures were warm, but without the tropical mugginess that can make periods of Central Illinois summers unbearable.
This brought out crowds that had some fair officials dreaming of 2019, when more than 500,000 people came through the gates and the state set an all-time record for grandstand ticket revenue.
“If you look at the crowd we saw yesterday and today, they are definitely on par to those types of crowds,” said Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II. “During the week, things can change a little bit. But yeah, we’ve had great attendance. We’ve had a ton of people complimenting the actual fair, so we’re very excited.”
Andy Kappes and his wife, Amy, took advantage of the nice weather Sunday to bring their 3-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son to the fair. A Springfield native, Kappes said this year’s fair felt, in a word, “normal.”
“It’s pretty normal, not too much different stuff going on and all,” Kappes said, chomping on a corn dog under the shaded Reisch Pavilion. “It seems pretty typical.”
That was the sentiment of many fairgoers Sunday, who basked in traditional fair fun even as an indoor mask requirement offered a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on in Illinois and across the country.
Brought on by the highly infectious Delta variant, nearly every county in Illinois is experiencing a “high” level of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Cases in Sangamon County, home of the fair, have increased more than 46% just in the last week.
The state’s rate of fully vaccinated people is 51.4%, though many counties in rural central and southern Illinois are significantly behind that total.
Speaking with Lee Enterprises after one of three scheduled events on the fairgrounds Sunday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker praised the work of the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Illinois Department of Public Health for allowing the fair to happen, calling it “a whole-of-government approach to keeping people safe.”
This includes a mask mandate for the fairgrounds’ indoor spaces and six vaccination sites for fairgoers interested in getting their shot along with their corn dog and lemon shake-up.
“Aside from that, this is a fun event,” Pritzker said. “The state fair is one of the best things that happens in the state of Illinois. And so for us to be able to reopen it, to have it once again after just a terrible year and a half of COVID and at a moment when things are better, though still challenging, I think everybody’s a bit relieved to have the opportunity to enjoy themselves.”
Pritzker said he’s seen “a good deal of compliance” with the mask mandate, though there didn’t appear to be enforcement when unmasked folks walked into indoor spaces.
“We have vaccines. That is the big difference,” Pritzker said, comparing this year to last year’s canceled event. “Vaccines have made all the difference and I want to heartily encourage everybody to go out and get vaccinated because it’s the best way we can protect each other.”
The fair is arguably the marquee event of the summer in Illinois’ capital city. It drives an estimated $84 million economic impact for the surrounding region, a boost missed last year by local businesses and, through lost sales tax revenue, local governments.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, present for a pair of events Sunday, said this year’s crowd felt “larger than normal.”
“It does lend itself to the hotels, restaurants. People come in from all across the state and actually (other) states when you’re talking about competition, especially with agriculture,” Langfelder said. “So it really does give a great shot in the arm to not only Springfield’s economy, but the economy of the bedroom communities around us and the county as well.”
A strong return was also welcome by longtime fair vendors like Kelsie Vose, whose family has been slinging corn dogs at their Vose Fine Foods stand across from the grandstand for 55 years.
“It has been good,” Vose said. “Obviously, the weather affected Thursday, but other than that people have been coming out early and staying late. So yeah, there’s a lot of people on the fairgrounds and I’m glad to hear it. I’m glad to see people are able to enjoy it.”
There was perhaps no one enjoying the fair’s return more than Springfield’s Dave Painter, who live just a few blocks from the fairgrounds.
“We drive through the fairgrounds about every day for the two weeks coming up to it just to see what’s coming in,” Painter said, sitting next to his wife, Sharon. “Scouting out our food places.”
Painter said this year’s fair has helped him through some recent health troubles.
“I just got diagnosed with cancer in April, so the fair is my thing to help,” he said. “It’s a good coping mechanism to be out here, so I’m glad I can make it here.”
For Theresa and Sid Palmer, of Harristown, the trip to the fair was for a more somber occasion: to take part in Veterans Day at the fairgrounds.
Theresa Palmer said her son was “just a regular rural kid from Central Illinois” who played baseball and loved anime.
“He was just a good kid,” she said. “He just thought that there was not much here and wanted to go out and live his life and do something.”
Asked why she attended, Palmer said “people need to remember that these guys gave it all.”
Pritzker attended three veterans-themed events on the fairgrounds Sunday, joined by First Lady MK Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Costello.
Sabrina Mohan, of Riverton, came Sunday with her son Parker and his friend Aiden. She said the fair is an annual tradition for them. She comes for the food, her son for the rides, she said.
“We’re gonna eat our way through the rides,” she said jokingly.
“It’s like a childhood pastime, you know what I mean? You got to come to the fair,” Mohan said.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS: Journey back to the Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Happy Hollow
Heinhold Hog Race
Aerial view of Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Coliseum
Chester White gilt pig
Auctioneer Merrill Anderson
Sale of champions
Shave and a haircut
Illinois Department of Agriculture
Arts and Textile Building
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