Kansas State Fair ‘a go’ after split vote by board
The Kansas Secretary of Health warned Kansas State Fair Board members on Tuesday that COVID-19 cases in the state are spiking and officials now don’t expect the current outbreak to end for a year to 18 months.
There should be no expectation by the time the fair rolls around that the virus won’t still be spreading in Kansas, Dr. Lee Norman told the board via Zoom, and the largest number of new cases are tied to mass gatherings.
Several fair board members, however, expressed a need to “move on with life” and acting on a recommendation from state fair staff voted 8-5 to have the fair, which historically draws about 300,000 people to Hutchinson from around the state and nation over 10 days in mid-September.
The board on Tuesday also voted not to have a rabbit show this year because of a virus spreading in rabbit populations that quickly kills the animals.
“I understand you’re sitting in the hot seat about the upcoming fair,” Norman said. “I’m not an economist. I’m a public health officer and a doctor. Without question, we are seeing an immense spike in COVID-19 in this state.
“We’ve seen a very unfortunate increase in per capita cases, we’ve seen an increase in hospital rates, we’ve seen an increase in death rates. From last Monday to yesterday there were over 2,000 new cases in Kansas alone. That’s as much as we had in an entire month before. And it’s going to get worse.”
It will be tough, Norman said, to follow recommended health guidelines to prevent the spread, including social distancing and wearing masks, during an event like the fair.
“It’s best not to have the state fair,” he said.
If the event goes forward, Norman said, he plans to advise to the Kansas Secretary of Corrections to not allow inmates from the Hutchinson Correctional Facility to assist during the fair.
“We’ve been through this at Lansing and the Wichita Work Release,” Norman said. “If new people are going into the facility, you’re going to get thousands of cases in the correctional facility. I’m not being hysterical. That’s what we’ve seen in confined living situations and this facility is old.”
Fair general manager Robin Jennison, in response to a question for a board member, said he didn’t know how they’d replace the 70 inmates who help keep the grounds clean, but he hoped they’d at least get to have inmates who worked cleaning barns between events, which is away from the public.
“No one will ever thank you for saving them from disease they didn’t know they were going to get, that you don’t know where it's coming from,” he said. “If you cancel the event and there’s not much disease there will not be a lot of warm fuzzies.”
“It’s going to get pretty bad, and it’s going to be bad for 18 to 24 months,” Norman said. “I don’t think there will be a magical thing with seasonality, that it will peak between now and September. I don’t see that. It will continue to spread. There will be new cases and it will be dangerous. We’re going, clearly, in the wrong direction.”
Board members asked Norman — after he’d already addressed the issues — about seasonality and whether more testing and lags in testing were skewing the data.
Norman noted that cases were rising in Texas, Oklahoma and Florida despite rising temperatures.
“I’m not optimistic about seasonality,” he said. “We’d hoped for that, but we’re not seeing it.”
He also noted it wasn’t just the number of cases that were rising, but the percentages of people testing positive.
After another board member questioned the quality of the state’s data, Norman said he thought it was “quite good.”
“We don’t have any ulterior motive here,” he said. “There’s no hospital or physician fraud, there’s no Medicare or Medicaid insurance fraud.”
Norman was also asked about the percentage of disease transfer, noting the rate was much lower in Kansas than in other states.
That number, Norman said, was not below one, so the virus continues to be transferred. But the greatest spread, he reiterated, was from mass gatherings, including bars and funerals.
“How long is this going to last?” board member Bob Atkinson asked rhetorically. “How long do we have to practice social distancing and wear masks? Sooner or later we have to go back to what passes for normal. We can’t stay at home and wear masks forever.”
“This is a new organism,” Norman said. “We’ve never seen it before. We’re trying to do the best we can … We don’t have a vaccine, so the only things we can do are social distancing, wearing masks and good hygiene. But rules don’t work if people won’t follow them. If we continue to go to mass gatherings, people are going to stay sick.”
A need to decide
The board discussed putting off a decision until July, to see how case numbers went, but Jennison advised the decision needed to be made now so vendors could order food and reservations made.
“Our recommendation is to have the full fair, and this is the way to do it,” Jennison said, referring to staff plans, which were reviewed by both Norman and Baldetti. “We looked at things like trying to limit numbers in buildings. If we do that, it does not make a lot of sense to keep everyone in the grandstand. If we try social distancing in the grandstand we’ll have a real problem with two concerts. We really hung our hat on the use of face coverings.”
“We’ve got people on both sides,” Jennison said. “You cannot make a decision today that will make everyone happy.
“We appreciate Dr. Norman’s perspective from a health standpoint. But a lot of people really love this fair. It’s a tremendous boost for the economy of the area. A lot of us feel at some point we need to get back on with our lives. I don’t think we can shut down the country, or Kansas again. We need to get on with our lives as safely as we can. If you decided to have the fair, we’ll operate that fair as safely as we can.”
After board vice chair Ron Hinrichsen made a motion to have the fair, which was seconded by Paula Landoll-Smith, the board’s state chamber representative, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam voiced concern.
“I’m a big advocate of the fair and the youth aspects of it more than anything,” Beam said. “But what we’ve seen happen the past two weeks as people started to get back together, that bothers me. This would be right during the early stage of schools. If we want to have the fair and the youth involved, they’ll all be going back to their schools. We could be in worse shape than we are now. Worse, if we plan to have the fair and this thing blows up in late July and August than we have to cancel, that’s the worst-case scenario.”
Board member Gregg Hadley, associate director of Extension at K-State, asked whether commercial exhibitors could have static displays that didn’t have to be staffed, and noted that early indications are it will be difficult to staff K-State booths, including the Birthing Center, since they are manned on a “pseudo-voluntary basis.”
Jennison said static displays had not been considered.
“What we’re trying to do is be consistent and use common sense,” Jennison said. “With a static exhibit that’s not staffed, you’ve still got a building full of people If you make each other sick, you make each other sick. If we decided to limit the number of vendors, what does that really do for us? On a hot day, you still have the aisles full.”
“I’d just like to encourage us to be open-minded about how people participate in the fair,” Hadley said.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m not sympathetic,” said board chair Harmon Bliss. “We’ve got to start living at some point. If you’re interested in coming or you’re at risk, don’t come.”
At-large member Dylan Evans asked if there were any legal repercussions if someone contracted COVID-19 at the fair. The board’s legal counsel said she didn’t know what cause of action there might be, but that the board is protected from tort claims and its members would be provided legal counsel by the state.
“I want to have the fair,” Evans said. “It’s near and dear to my heart. But the thing we all need to think deeply about is everyone wants this to happen until it affects you or a family member or a loved one. Then I think your opinion is drastically changed. I’ve not had a family member affected, so I’m out and about. But it weighs on my conscience.”
“My concern, Landoll-Smith said, “is I don’t want to take the choice away from the public Let the public make their own choice.”
“I’m sympathetic to those who’ve had it,” Atkinson said. “It’s a bad deal. But you have to remember, life itself is not safe … We have to live our lives. We have to get back to what normal is. I’m in favor of the motion, let's do the fair. I realize there will be some risk, but we need to move forward.”
Recently appointed board member John Bottenberg, who served in the Legislature and was previously on the fair board, noted “this is one of the toughest votes I’ve ever faced.”
“I’m going to vote for this motion only because the staff is monitoring the situation,” Bottenberg said. “I think we’ll be back here on a Zoom vote on other things closer to the event and I have confidence that staff will adjust as we move along. There are going to be adjustments that will have to be made.
“Listening to Dr. Norman, this is a long way from over. But I hate to stop it now when the chance is we can make adjustments and make it better and make it safe. I support the motion. I may not support the next one, but we need to keep moving forward.”
Bliss initially called for a voice vote and the motion appeared to easily pass. A board member, however, asked for a roll call vote, which indicated a much closer vote.
Voting yes were Atkinson, Hinrichsen, Evans, Bliss, Landoll-Smith, Bottenberg, Nicholas Ketzner and Kathy Brazle. Voting no were Beam, Sarah Green, Holly Lofton, and Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Kayla Savage.