Iowa State Fair CEO: Barring calamity, there will be no repeat of 2020 fair's coronavirus cancellation

Sierra A. Porter
Des Moines Register

There are many unknowns surrounding the 2021 Iowa State Fair.

But fair CEO Gary Slater says one thing is certain: Barring a huge and unexpected resurgence of the coronavirus, there will be a fair.

“In terms of whether the fair will go ahead or not, if we continue to get better and better and the virus rate keeps going down and down, I don’t think that’s an issue on whether the fair will go forward or not," Slater told the Des Moines Register in an interview this week.

Slater said he has no intention of seeing the fair canceled, as it was because of the coronavirus pandemic last year. It was the first cancellation since World War II of the 165-year-old fair, the biggest annual event in Iowa.

Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has gotten a slow start in Iowa, and variants of the virus pose a threat. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House health adviser, and analysts at global strategic consulting firm McKinsey & Co., along with other experts, have said that, barring calamity, the U.S. should be returning to normal by the third quarter of 2021.

The Aug. 12-22 celebration of all things Iowa sits squarely in the middle of that period.

Planning for the fair, which drew a record 1.17 million people in 2019, already is underway. A list of major performers, including Blake Shelton and Keith Urban, has been booked for grandstand shows. 

Slater said the question now is what form various events will take. 

"Whether we dial that plan up to the fullest extent or whether we're able to dial it back a little bit in some areas because we're a primarily outdoor event, I think that remains to be seen. That plan is there," Slater said.

More:Iowa State Fair canceled for the first time since World War II, will return in 2021

Those questions will be answered by mid-May, Slater said. He said he and the fair board will be monitoring coronavirus safety guidelines, how they're changing, and the vaccination rate in Iowa. 

"A lot will be told in the next three months," he said, noting that there still will be three months before the fair, "and that's a lot of time left" to make the necessary adjustments.

"We're certainly prepared to have a fair and have it safely," he said.  

When the fair was canceled in 2020, its board made the decision in June, two months before the fair was to start.

Slater said it has yet to be determined whether the fair or some of its events will be subject to capacity limitations, or what vaccination rate Iowa must reach for the fair to determine it will drop face mask or social distance requirements. Gov. Kim Reynolds already has rolled back state restrictions on public events.

The fair, with its concessions, competitions, performers and midway, has an estimated $100 million annual economic impact, including tens of millions of dollars in revenues for Des Moines hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses. Its cancellation even affected other tourist attractions, including the Blank Park Zoo. 

"The Iowa State Fair represents one of those treasured venues that our communities rely upon, this one being very large,” said Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance. “It is a place that convenes a lot of different people from around the state, and keeps us unified for 11 days and clearly has a large economic impact not just on Des Moines, but also all the agricultural interests that it represents.”

Beyond the fairgrounds:Economic impact of canceled Iowa State Fair over $100 million

Slater, who sits on the Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau executive board, said last year's cancellation crippled the already-reeling entertainment, restaurant, motel and hotel industry in Des Moines. 

He said it is crucial that the fair go on this year.  

"Since we missed last year, there will be an extra effort to get here," he said. 

Eric Campbell of E.N. Campbell Concessions was one of the many vendors who were supposed to be at last year's fair, selling corn dogs and frozen confections along the Grand Concourse, in front of the grandstand and along the sidewalk in front of the administration building. 

"It affected us because our main business is the Iowa State Fair," Campbell said. "Not having the Iowa State Fair and being shut down for two or three months in the spring without doing any outside events, it affected our business tremendously." 

He said he's depending on the fair being held this year, and that another cancellation would be "devastating" to his business.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to normal, getting back to work and getting everybody back on track ...," Campbell said. 

Sierra Porter covers entertainment for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at or via Twitter @SierraAPorter95