Minnesota State Fair and government officials say the Great Minnesota Get-Together opening Thursday will be a safe gathering because of a strong security plan and enhanced patrols on the perimeter of the grounds.
Gov. Tim Walz and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington joined the fair's General Manager Jerry Hammer and Police Chief Ron Knafla at a news conference Tuesday afternoon outside the fair's transit hub to discuss how they plan to protect the anticipated 1.7 million visitors.
Harrington said the millions who visit the fair can "come here knowing … it's a safe environment" with a threat level determined to be "extremely low."
Hammer expects this year's fair to be closer to normal than the past two. COVID-19 shut down the event in 2020 for only the sixth time in a history that predates Minnesota's statehood. COVID variants and wet weather held attendance to 1.3 million last year. The last normal year was 2019, when the fair set an attendance record of 2.1 million.
This year also brings a return of the State Fair's own police force. In 2021, the fair's police chief retired in May so the Ramsey County sheriff's department oversaw security.
In recent years, at the behest of the fair, Harrington's agency has conducted threat assessments for the 12-day event. "Our job is to think about worst-case scenarios," he said.
Harrington praised the advance preparations by Knafla as the most robust, versatile and flexible plans he's seen.
The event's security will draw law enforcement from 55 agencies throughout the state, including 200 officers dedicated to the fair's police force.
Knafla said there will be enhanced security on the 322-acre grounds this year, some of which will be obvious and some not.
There will be more officers, including those from the Ramsey County sheriff's department and the St. Paul Police Department, patrolling the perimeter outside the gates. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also will be on-site with investigative skills.
"We need that extra support and we're happy to have it," Knafla said.
He also said there will be more officers and intelligence specialists in the fair's "problem spots." He didn't identify the location of those spots.
In 2019 as the fair was closing for the year on Labor Day, three people were shot and another was run over outside the gates on Snelling Avenue at Midway Parkway.
Walz said the collaboration among law enforcement agencies is an example of how security should work and that he has confidence in their ability to provide a safe fair because "they're properly resourced," Walz said.
As in recent years, guns are banned at the fair and visitors will be required to pass through magnetometers to enter. The fairgrounds also have "a lot" of surveillance cameras, Hammer said.
The fair's hours were shortened this year, but Hammer said that was in response to attendance, not safety concerns. The fair will open an hour later at 7 a.m., and close at 11 p.m. instead of midnight on all nights except Labor Day — the final day, Sept. 5 — when it closes at 9 p.m.
Except for the fair "junkies," few patrons arrived before 7 a.m. and most of the grounds were empty by 11 p.m., Hammer said. The change "gives us two extra hours to get the grounds in shape" during the overnights, Hammer said.