Assuming the pandemic is under control, next year’s Napa Town & Country Fair will take place July 7-11, a month earlier than usual, in hopes of insulating the annual amusement and livestock festival from wildfire-induced disruptions.
Board members of the state-owned Napa Valley Expo voted to move up the 2021 fair from its normal August date, citing the heightened risks of earlier wildfires — and the potential of event-killing power cutoffs to prevent them — to late-summer events.
The unanimous decision follows a summer in which two of California’s largest wildfires on record struck the Napa Valley — the Hennessey Fire, which was triggered by lightning Aug. 17, and the Glass Fire that erupted Sept. 27.
Last May, directors canceled the 2020 fair, set for Aug. 12-16, at the advice of Napa County’s health department to avoid mass gatherings that could intensify the spread of COVID-19.
While the rescheduling of the Expo will apply only to 2021, board president John Dunbar warned Tuesday that earlier fires, air-quality alerts due to fire smoke, and preemptive power cuts will likely remain threats before the autumn months traditionally seen as the highest-risk period.
“We’re seeing October as the higher risk of fire but it has moved into earlier parts of the summer with significantly higher temperatures for more days, with high winds,” he said during a virtual meeting of the 25th District Agricultural Association.
“The reason for the change is because of the encroachment of fire season and PSPS (shutdowns), the encroachment of the school year — all that was taken into consideration,” said Joe Anderson, the former Expo chief executive who continues to consult the fair authority.
Officials with the Expo and Helm and Sons Amusements, which operates the fair’s carnival, discussed fair dates from June to the beginning of August before setting on the first half of July, according to Corey Oakley, vice president of the Colton-based company.
Expo leaders cautioned that they could be forced to again cancel the fair, depending on the status of the COVID-19 outbreak next year. But setting a date now will give local youth a chance to raise animals and prepare for the Junior Livestock Auction, one of the Napa fair’s showcase events.
Despite the cancellation of this August’s fair, the Expo organized an online version of the auction, which included drive-through delivery of the animals at the fairground on Third Street.
“We want to give certainty to our livestock folks so they know what the breeding calendar looks like,” said Dunbar.
Statewide uncertainty about which other county fairs might be canceled or moved in 2021 due to the pandemic may throw more challenges into the planning of the Town & Country Fair, Expo board members said.
The new July date puts Napa in competition for food vendors with the Alameda County fair, while earlier dates are occupied by fairs in Sonoma and Marin counties and later dates by the Cal Expo and the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, said Anderson.
“Perhaps if we’re faced with fewer available food vendors, it may be a chance to work with local restaurants to bring them into the fair and set up a local food court, and provide local jobs and have a presence,” said board vice present Jeri Hansen. “Maybe we can make some lemonade out of these lemons, and pull in some local restaurant vendors if we need to.”
Hanging over preparations by the Expo — and other fair authorities — is the murky state of amusement complexes under pandemic-era rules designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Health last week released guidelines tying the extent to which amusement parks may reopen to their progress bringing down the rate of COVID-19 infections, but industry leaders are not yet certain whether those rules also will apply to county fairs and carnival operators, Expo and Helm officials said later Tuesday.
“I’m afraid California is not even addressing county fairs until further down the road,” said Oakley of Helm and Sons. “My feeling is if it’s OK for amusement parks to open, it should be OK for county fairs to open.”
The California guidelines call for allowing amusement parks to reopen only if a county has reached orange or yellow status, the top two of four tiers in lowering infection rate. Napa County is at the orange level, one step down from yellow.
Largely dormant after a state shelter-at-home order began in March, the Expo is hosting a winter-season homeless shelter that has stayed open through the summer, as well as a drive-through virus testing center. Indoor fairground space also has been set aside for overflow patients should a larger COVID-19 outbreak overwhelm the capacity of local hospitals.
A July fair in 2021 would mark the Expo’s second attempt in recent years to move the gathering to an earlier summer date.
In 2014 and 2015, the Town & Country Fair took place in early July, but the event was returned in 2016 to its traditional place in the second week of August shortly before the start of the school year — a position that allowed food and commercial vendors to come to Napa from the Sonoma County Fair, Anderson said at the time. Directors also said the later schedule gave livestock contest entrants more time to fatten their animals, and allowed more time to clear out the fairground after the BottleRock music festival, the Expo’s prime moneymaker that takes place in late May.
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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or email@example.com