Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland Fair, says the fair will be held this year, though he’s not sure what it will look like. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In another sign that Mainers may soon be able to reclaim some of the small pleasures of their pre-pandemic lives, fairgrounds around the state will open this summer and fall for folks to mingle with barnyard animals or snack on fried dough and apple crisp.

While some of Maine’s best-known festivals – such as the Maine Lobster Festival and Bath Heritage Days – have been canceled, organizers of many of the state’s longtime summer festivals and all 26 of its fairs plan to hold them. Organizers say they’re not completely sure what their events will look like or exactly what COVID-19 rules they’ll have to follow, as state guidelines continue to be updated, and they acknowledge that unexpected events, like a massive resurgence of the virus, could alter their plans at any time.

“I really think we can do it safely, and it will be good medicine because people really need to get out and do things, see things,” said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland Fair, which normally hosts about 70,000 people on 100 acres during a weeklong run. “We’ll certainly have to make a lot of adjustments, to make people feel comfortable.”

The fairs planning to return after being shuttered in 2020 include the Cumberland Fair and the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, both scheduled for September, and the Fryeburg Fair in October. The first fair of the summer, the Monmouth Fair, is slated to open June 15. Summer festivals returning this year include Boothbay Harbor Windjammer Days in late June, the Blistered Fingers Family Bluegrass Festivals in Litchfield in June and August, the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland in July and the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in early September.

The Cumberland Fairgrounds will host visitors again this year, organizers say. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But the pandemic has already claimed several of Maine’s favorite summer and fall events for a second year, including Bath Heritage Days, the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, La Kermesse Franco-Americaine Festival in Biddeford, the Yarmouth Clam Festival, the South Berwick Strawberry Festival, the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland and the Great Falls Balloon Festival in Lewiston and Auburn. Many of those have no ticketed admission or fenced areas, and organizers felt limiting crowds would be a daunting task.

Portland’s annual Fourth of July celebration will not be held this year, at least not in its full form. The annual celebration featuring the Portland Symphony Orchestra performing on the Eastern Promenade was called off because of health and safety concerns, organizers announced Friday. But the city still is considering putting on a fireworks display of some kind, and City Manager Jon Jennings plans to include about $30,000 for that in his budget proposal, said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS

The people planning to put on fairs and festivals say the decision on whether to go forward was a difficult one, as they tried to weigh the progress being made with vaccines – more than 27 percent of Mainers had received their final doses as of Saturday, according to state officials – and the fact that Maine’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise. The seven-day average climbed to more than 300 last week, the highest it’s been in two months. On the positive side, all adult Mainers are currently eligible for vaccines, and the state’s outdoor gathering limits will be relaxed May 24 to allow a venue to use 100 percent of its normal capacity, but with 6-foot spacing between groups. Currently, the outdoor capacity limit is 75 percent.

The Yarmouth Clam Festival, which attracts visitors to events all over town, has been canceled for the second year in a row. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

So while there’s hope things will get better before the summer or fall, there’s a big financial risk for event and fair organizers to prepare for a full-on event not knowing for sure that it will happen or attract paying customers. For example, Maine’s biggest fair, the Fryeburg Fair, costs about $3 million a year to put on, said David Andrews, the fair’s superintendent. Though there was no fair last year, the nonprofit fair association still spent about $1 million for improvements, prep work and maintenance projects, said Andrews.

“I think it’s definitely a harder decision this year, because last year the writing was on the wall, and we had to cancel. This year it’s more like, maybe you can have a fair, maybe you can’t. It’s a bit of a gamble. If we have a variant that hits the state, or something else happens, who knows?” said Andrews. “We feel it’s important to have some sort of fair; it’s a tradition for generations of people. People tell me they were heartbroken last year.”

The organizers of Maine’s 26 agricultural fairs have been meeting regularly – often virtually – and, as of last week, were all planning to go forward with some type of fair this year, said Melissa Jordan, an agricultural promotions coordinator for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, who is working with the fairs. She said it’s complicated to understand how COVID-19 guidelines affect fairs, since they involve many different activities, including preparing and selling food, putting on displays or performances, rides and games, and include large crowds that aren’t in one seated area.

“Figuring out how many people they can accommodate, how do they enforce spacing, what sort of guidelines do they need for vendors, these are all things we’re working with the fairs on,” said Jordan. “Most fairs are run by volunteers, so this is a lot for them to try to navigate.”

On Monday, the state Department of Economic and Community Development issued updates to its COVID-19 prevention checklists for large outdoor gatherings and ticketed events, including the requirement that 6 feet of physical space must be maintained between groups or individuals at all times, even after May 24, when outdoor sites can hold 100 percent of their permitted capacity.

Those guidelines specifically mention “structured” festivals, which are events where the flow of people can be controlled through a gate and contact tracing can be done, said Kate Foye, a department spokeswoman. Foye said the department is working on specific updated guidelines for fairs and has not yet issued them. She said the department is also working on specific guidelines for unticketed and unstructured festivals, a category that would have included the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Moxie Festival.

The Moxie Festival, including its parade, has been canceled this year while some music festivals are going forward. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Other unstructured festivals like Bath Heritage Days, usually held around July Fourth, and the Moxie Festival, usually held later in July in Lisbon Falls, both of which have already been canceled, are held throughout their towns and include many different events. The Moxie Festival usually brings 30,000-40,000 people to Lisbon Falls to celebrate the soft-drink Moxie – invented by Mainer Augustin Thompson in the late 1800s – and is run by the town. The Bath Heritage Days brings 20,000-30,000 people to Bath for fireworks, a parade, a carnival and other activities and is run by the nonprofit group Main Street Bath.

“Our event is spread out over two miles, so what is our capacity? That’s a hard one for us to follow,” said Mark Stevens, Lisbon’s parks and recreation director. “The state has been all over the map with its guidelines. We can’t predict what the guidelines will be going forward.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

Though it’s unclear what state measures might be in place for fairs later on this year, organizers say they’ll look at a host of changes to try to meet whatever the guidelines might be. In Fryeburg, Andrews said organizers are hoping for a fairly normal fair, but he figures masks will probably still be required and that hand-washing stations and hand-sanitizer dispensers will likely be added throughout the fairgrounds, as well as signs that direct pedestrian traffic flows so that no areas get congested.

Fryeburg Fair has gotten more than 160,000 paid admissions during its Sunday-to-Sunday run on a 200-acre site. Andrews said one thing organizers would probably do, if spacing guidelines are still in place, is move the popular pig scramble event, where young children try to catch small pigs, to the outdoors. Usually, it’s held in an enclosed pulling ring, where some 3,000 people squeeze into wooden bleachers to watch. Other changes that might be made to provide more space in the fairgrounds – like cutting out carnival rides – would have to be weighed against how much revenue would be lost from those changes, Andrews said.

Some smaller fairs might be in a better position to meet spacing requirements and other rules. The Ossipee Valley Fair in Hiram usually attracts about 6,000 to 8,000 people on to its 47-acre fairground over the course of four days in July, said Bill Jones, president of the fair group. Jones is confident that fairgoers and vendors can be spaced out enough to meet state guidelines. Though the fair is scheduled to take place and Jones is optimistic it will, he said last week, organizers will have one more meeting to make a final decision.

At the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, organizers are planning for both live events and virtual ones, and might end up with a hybrid event, depending on what conditions are like in September, said April Boucher, the fair director. Boucher said organizers have been running an online survey to see what people want in a fair this year and what they would feel comfortable with, if they were to come in person.

Boothbay Harbor’s Windjammer Days will take place this year, mostly on the water. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Boothbay Harbor Windjammer Days eliminated some of the events that normally draw big crowds to the seaside town, including the parade, said Mark Gimbel, one of the event organizers. Instead, businesses, nonprofit groups and residents will be asked to decorate buildings and homes. People can then get a map and drive by the decorated sites themselves.

Organizers also eliminated a massive tug-of-war game, on a footbridge across the harbor, and there will be no food vendors. What remains are the 16 or so sailing vessels, most over 100 years old, gathering in the harbor. People can spread out all around town to see them, and there will likely be limited boat tours, Gimbel said. The event is June 27 through July 3.

At Thomas Point Bluegrass Festival, Sept. 2-5, people will bring their own lawn chairs and will not be allowed to leave them set up while unseated, said Michael Mulligan, owner of Thomas Point Beach and Campground, the festival’s venue and organizer. Mulligan said, because the site is a campground, he doesn’t see a problem spacing people out and meeting other guidelines, including that people wear masks. Scheduled performers this year include Sam Bush, the Del McCoury Band and Steep Canyon Rangers. Thomas Point is hosting other events throughout the summer as well, including a car show and a fly-fishing showcase.

The North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland usually gets 4,000 or more people for a dozen or so performers over two days in Harbor Park. Co-producer Jamie Isaacson believes the audience can be spread throughout the park to meet state guidelines. Whether or not the festival’s pub crawl will take place this year is unclear and depends on whether Rockland clubs are operating and to what capacity. Performers at the this year’s festival include Coco Montoya, Johnny Rawls, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Jason Ricci and Thornetta Davis. The event is July 10 and 11.

“We’re going to do whatever the state and the CDC says we have to,” Isaacson said. “We’re ready to adjust on the fly to make this happen this year.”

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