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No fair: COVID-19 disrupts tradition and county revenue

April Simpson, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

Percy L. Lewis III was especially looking forward to this year's Neshoba County Fair, an annual Mississippi event where he races his horses and carries forward a family tradition.

At 42, Lewis has been riding horses since he was 5 or 6 years old. Growing up, Lewis, his brother and a childhood friend would race on a local dirt road. As adults, they decided they wanted to race on a track. It seemed like as soon as they did, Lewis' friend was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

"We was talking about it but then, after, he passed away," Lewis said. "I just went on. I did it for him."

This would have been Lewis' third year racing on the Neshoba County Fair track near Philadelphia, Mississippi. But the fair known as Mississippi's giant house party, like hundreds of others, is canceled this year. For organizations whose business models are built on gathering large groups of people, the pandemic has wiped out their ability to carry on while keeping fairgoers, volunteers and staff safe.

Without the annual events, vendors, hotels and other small local businesses miss out on income they rely on. School-age children who spent the past year raising a pig or cow have no place to show or sell their work. Harness racers like Lewis have one less venue to recoup their investments by winning prize money.

Some fair operators fear for their fair's long-term survival, as many organizations are shut out of federal pandemic relief and receive little to no state money.

 

The Neshoba County Fair draws about 75,000 people to rural central Mississippi over eight days. Many fairgoers stay in hundreds of campers and two-story cabins that can sleep up to 60 guests.

"There was simply no way we could require masks and keep everybody at a 6-foot distance," said fair manager Doug Johnson.

Today's county fairs have a front and back of the house, said Michael T. Marsden, a retired professor of English, American studies and media studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Rides, entertainment and foods (funnel cake, anyone?) excite fairgoers' senses at the front. Head to the back for serious judging of livestock, produce and baked goods.

"The front of the house is more popular culture," Marsden said. "The back of the house is more folklore passed on orally."

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