The Minnesota State Fair is back. Smells good. Feels weird.
The fairgrounds reopened at dawn Thursday, releasing a cloud of Pronto Pup steam across a state that had gone too long without food on a stick.
Nearly everything Minnesotans had been missing for the past two years was back. The rides, the live music, the butter heads, the crop art, the giant vegetables, the ridiculous new foods, the prizewinning preserves, a barn full of bunnies.
Everything was back but the Minnesotans.
State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer sat people-watching on a bench at the foot of the grandstand Friday. Opening day drew about half the usual crowd. On this cool rainy Friday, visitors again had plenty of room for social distance.
"It feels right to be here — for people who are comfortable here," Hammer said. Around him, fairgoers wandered between booths and barns and that pond behind the DNR building where Minnesotans gather to stare at fish. Some were masked outdoors. Most weren't. Fair officials had requested, but not required, visitors to come masked and vaccinated.
"For people who are comfortable attending the fair, we have a great experience for you," Hammer said. "But we also ask you to do the right thing."
What's new at the fair this year? That's the question he's used to fielding at the start of fair season. Tell us about the new vendors, the new attractions, the weird new food they're deep-frying.
This year, short-staffed and with three months to pull together a fair that usually takes a year to plan, he fielded questions about danger and death and Minnesota emergency rooms that were already more than 90% full before the gates opened. This year, people want to know why the fair isn't requiring masks indoors, or proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test at the gate before inviting thousands of Minnesotans to get back together.
"What's new at the fair? A fair," Hammer said.
Minnesotans have been gathering in crowds for months. But the delta variant is surging just as the Great Minnesota Get-Together is drawing thousands of people with very different comfort levels on the issues of masks, vaccines and eating horse paste.
The best part of the Minnesota State Fair was always the Minnesotans. The fairgrounds were 322 acres of common ground. We might live in different ZIP codes, cheer different sports teams and vote different tickets, but for 12 days we could come together in shared appreciation of newborn lambs, deep-fried pickles and whatever strange lip balm the Star Tribune booth was giving out.
But it's hard to get together when we don't feel safe together.
It's hard to focus on the crop art when you're surrounded by people who are either unmasked inside the Agriculture/Horticulture building because they're fully vaccinated or unmasked because they just swallowed a spoonful of horse dewormer (people, don't eat it. It doesn't work, and also, it's for horses).
Fair officials are trying to coax wary fair fans back through the gates. An online Gopher Gauge tracks attendance and lets people know whether crowds are sparse — one gopher — or whether it's a three-gopher mosh pit.
And people who come to the fair unvaccinated don't always leave that way.
On opening day, the Minnesota Department of Health's fairgrounds vaccination clinic administered 227 first doses, accompanied by $100 thank-you gift cards from a grateful state.
Some fairgoers had been waiting for final FDA approval to get the jab. Others realized that $100 buys a lot of rides on the giant slide.
The State Fair is back and Minnesotans aren't together.
Some are vaxxed and relaxed and ready to resume something like a normal life. Some refuse to see COVID as a threat. Some are still in lockdown, terrified for the safety of their unvaccinated children and immunocompromised loved ones in a state where some people refuse to wear a mask for the 20 minutes it takes to visit all the baby animals in the Miracle of Birth barn.
We made it through 2020 without a State Fair, and thousands of fair fans will be sitting this one out, too, as delta surges and schools and businesses mask up.
Hammer, who grew up a block from the fairgrounds, has seen one year without a fair. He couldn't bear another. All those virtual fair programs and online performances and long-distance crop art projects were about as satisfying as a Zoom meeting. Nothing at all like sitting on a bench by the grandstand, watching great Minnesotans get together again.
"This is Minnesota's celebration of humanity and it's our obligation to deliver," Hammer said. "Minnesota needs its fair."
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks