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Just 62% Of Iowa Adults Are Vaccinated, But That's Not Stopping The State Fair

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The iconic Iowa State Fair is making a comeback this summer. But while thousands may be craving a fried Oreo cookie and cannot wait to see the farm animals, holding the fair during the pandemic still raises concerns. Iowa Public Radio's Grant Gerlock reports.

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: The Grand Concourse at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines looks ready for a crowd. This is where you can buy a bucket of chocolate chip cookies or a veggie corndog, if you like. Organizers don't know if attendance will top a million like it did two years ago, but people here are excited to be back at the fair.

ANNA FLOWERS: We always see the butter cow, and they always want a corn dog.

GERLOCK: Anna Flowers brought her kids for an early taste of the fair before it officially opens.

FLOWERS: It was a huge disappointment last year when it was canceled even though it was probably the smart thing to do. But everyone's pretty excited to come this year.

GERLOCK: People here plan their whole summer around this huge state fair. It's a place presidential candidates come to get noticed. But last year, it was canceled for the first time since World War II because of the pandemic. Now, the sights and sounds are back, from the infamous butter cow to the state's largest boar and everything imaginable battered and deep fried. But the coronavirus never went away, and health experts are worried the delta variant could spoil the fun for some. Dr. Aneesa Afroze is an infectious disease specialist with MercyOne Medical Center in Des Moines.

ANEESA AFROZE: It's not that we don't want people to enjoy, but we also don't want to see, you know, the surge in cases in our hospitals a week after the fair.

GERLOCK: Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater says there are new precautions in place, including dozens of new places to find hand sanitizer. Also, following CDC guidelines, masks are recommended indoors whether or not someone is vaccinated.

GARY SLATER: If you're unvaccinated and you need to wear your mask, you certainly can. They're not required, but certainly encouraged. And of course, vaccinated folks, kind of up to them if they choose to wear a mask or not.

GERLOCK: Coming into this week, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Iowa are trending up. According to the CDC, 59% of eligible Iowans are fully vaccinated. Afroze says that's not enough to stop the virus. At the biggest event in the state, she says the odds are good the delta variant will reach people who don't have the shot.

AFROZE: They say, you know, alpha variant would infect three to four people. This one could infect up to eight to nine people around them.

GERLOCK: As much as the return of the fair is about celebrating blue ribbons and enjoying midway rides, it's also about sustaining it as a business. Slater says canceling last year was a big financial hit.

SLATER: The fair lost over $13 million in doing that, and the fair doesn't have $13 million to lose.

GERLOCK: Brian Kreps says he felt it, too. His family runs Stockman's Inn, a food and beer stand across from the horse barn that's been in his family for 50 years.

BRIAN KREPS: So yeah, I've worked here since I was, like, 8 years old, so I kind of grew up with the place every August.

GERLOCK: Kreps doesn't travel to other events. His business model is based on 11 really busy days at this fair. So for him, last year was a washout.

KREPS: From what I hear, county fairs are doing great. And so we might make up a little lost ground from last year if this is a really good fair for us.

GERLOCK: Local county health officials say they know if the fare is on, people won't stay home. Their advice is to wear a mask as much as possible, to stay with your group and apart from others and to go when the crowds are smaller. And now, they're offering this incentive - if you go in and get a vaccine, they'll give you free tickets to the Iowa State Fair.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS OF ORCHIS' "ANOTHER BODY OF WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.