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After a year break due to the coronavirus pandemic, the North Carolina State Fair returned on Thursday, opening to modest crowds, sunny skies and fair-goers happy to be back — including Earnest and Margaret Pope.
“We wanted to make the first day,” Earnest Pope said. “I’ve been coming about all my life, and I’m 74.”
“I couldn’t wait for it to open up. That’s what brought us back the first day,” he said.
The Popes visited the horse complex, the garden show and had hot dogs all in the first hours, then after a break planned to go see the farm equipment and livestock.
Margaret Pope said the fair needs more seating, as the two of them rested on a bench outside the Dorton Arena midday.
Earnest Pope said he is not worried about COVID-19 at the fair, or if people wear masks indoors. A Baptist minister, he said he leaves it “in God’s hands.”
The State Fair runs through Oct. 24.
A few hours before the gates opened to the public, Michelle Hartman of Hartman Farms in Walnut Cove was getting her family’s six heifers and steers ready for competition. The Hartmans are at the fair every year.
Hartman, a sophomore at South Stokes High School, said the past year of the coronavirus pandemic “made school weird” but otherwise she wasn’t worried about COVID-19 at the fair. She planned to check out the rest of the activities during down time. The Hartman Farm is a cattle farm and meat market and their cattle have won grand champion ribbons. For Hartman, she was most looking forward to the fair food.
Chris Wrenn, who co-owns the food vendor Ragin’ Cajun with his wife and daughter, said they hope to see all the people they missed last year.
One of the new foods this year from Ragin’ Cajun, which is based in Fuquay-Varina, is Cheerwine candied apple hush puppies. They’ve taken some food safety measures like not having self-service sauces, and providing individually wrapped condiments. Most of his crew is vaccinated, he said.
“Without going down that rabbit hole, I think it’s an individual choice thing. And I think most of my crowd, they’re very responsible and they worry about their fellow man. I feel pretty good,” Wrenn said.
Wrenn said he missed the sights, the sounds, the colors and all the people at the fair.
“I think everybody’s ready for it,” he said.
Governor at the fair
One of the first fair-goers Thursday was N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper took a brief tour of the fair with Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and also stopped to visit the fair’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the row of permanent food vendors between Dorton Arena and the midway.
Vaccination workers said they were offering Pfizer boosters and Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna first doses to fair-goers.
For fair food, Cooper, who was wearing Cheerwine socks, stopped to get a caramel apple. Troxler demurred on his favorite fare.
“Well I love — see, I am political — and all these people out here want me to say that their food is my favorite. I love all the fair foods,” Troxler said.
Troxler, a Republican, is a farmer and Cooper, a Democrat, grew up working on a farm. Cooper said the fair supports the state’s No. 1 industry, agriculture.
“We know what it means to our state’s economy, but just to who we are as North Carolinians,” he said. “So many around the state have told us how much they look forward to this. And the reason we’re able to do it is because of vaccines.”
Asked about concerns of COVID-19 spreading at the fair, the governor said the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend wearing masks outside, but cautioned about crowds.
“I think if you’re in a big, big crowd of people and gonna be there for a period of time outside, you would want to put a mask on. But one of the things I’m glad about is you can come in and get your vaccine at the fair,” he said.
The city of Raleigh has an indoor mask mandate, but state government buildings are exempt, which includes the State Fairgrounds. The fair does not have a mask mandate, nor a vaccination mandate like other event venues. About 10% to 20% of vendors and fair-goers were wearing masks at the fair on Thursday afternoon.
Lynette Bennett sat by the fair’s waterfall stage with her son Darius and daughter Destiney.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been. It’s just something to do, to visit and see what they have,” Lynette Bennett said. They live in Fayetteville and arrived right as the fair opened in Raleigh.
She said she was happy and excited to be able to “get out and do things again.”
All the Bennetts had masks with them. Lynette Bennett said she was glad the fair wasn’t really crowded. They most wanted to check out the food, and get some candy apples for her friends.
Donna Parnell of Wilson sat on the curb in Kiddieland eating chicken with her 14-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. They arrived mid-afternoon. She said they “absolutely” missed the fair last year. They came on opening day to beat the crowds. Parnell said she was not worried about COVID-19 at the fair.
“It’s nice. It’s nice to see everybody out and having a good time,” she said.