Iowa State Fair 2021: Health department recommends widespread masking, vaccinations to combat delta variant

By: - August 3, 2021 11:22 am

Fairgoers ride the Skyglider at the Iowa State Fair in August 2014. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa State Fair begins next week, promising fried food, carnival games and crowds of over a million. But as COVID-19 cases rise in Iowa, public health experts are urging “smart decisions” during the festivities to prevent the spread of the virus.

The primary concern is the delta variant of COVID-19, a more transmissible and dangerous strain of the virus that caused the cancellation of last year’s fair. Polk County public health officials announced Monday there was a “high” level of transmission in the county according to CDC data, a step above the “substantial” level of transmission last week.

Polk County Health Department Spokesperson Nola Aigner Davis said unvaccinated visitors to state fair could make things even more difficult.

“It is incredibly hard for us when counties come in, when individuals come in that are not vaccinated,” she said. “It puts our county, it puts others at risk.”

When asked about rising COVID-19 cases ahead of the fair, Gov. Kim Reynolds encouraged people to be vaccinated.

“We’re telling people to be vaccinated, first and foremost,” Reynolds said at a July 28 news conference. “I’ve been very clear about that. That is the best defense to COVID.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health echoed her message on Monday. IDPH Spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand responded to questions about State Fair precautions with a broad statement about the importance of vaccinations.

“IDPH has always emphasized the importance of using the tools available to protect Iowans from the spread of the COVID-19 virus including masks, hand washing, and social distancing,” Ekstrand wrote in an email. “Most importantly, the vaccine is the best way to protect ourselves and others from the virus and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”

What precautions will the Iowa State Fair have in place?

The State Fair released updated guidance on Monday. Masks are recommended indoors, but are not required for anyone. Buildings will not have a capacity limit, but social distancing is encouraged where possible.

The fair will provide additional hand-washing stations and cleaning of high-touch areas. People who feel sick are encouraged to stay home.

“Fairgoer safety and health are our priorities and we continue to closely monitor and follow all current CDC guidelines,” fair spokesperson Mindy Williamson wrote in an email to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “We will share more information if needed as we approach opening day.”

I’m unvaccinated — can I still attend the fair? What precautions should I take?

Aigner Davis urged Iowans to get at least the first shot of the vaccine before the fair begins. There isn’t enough time before the fair to receive a full two-dose course, but even the first shot provides some immunity.

“At least one vaccine on board is going to give you at least 70% protection,” she said.

She also recommended that unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Iowans wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor areas. Although transmission of the disease is less likely outdoors, large crowds — like those on the Main Concourse or at concerts — increase the risk.

“Anywhere you know the delta is spreading, people should be wearing a mask,” Aigner Davis said.

The Iowa State Fair encourages masks indoors but will not require them.

Polk County Public Health has organized several vaccination efforts around the fair. On Aug. 3, people receiving their first or second dose of the vaccine will receive two free food items and two free fair tickets. Hy-Vee will host daily vaccination clinics on the fairgrounds during the 11-day event.

Do I have to wear a mask if I’m vaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear face coverings at indoor events in areas with significant spread of COVID-19.

Aigner Davis recommended that vaccinated attendees should wear their masks indoors and in any situations where they feel uncomfortable.

The State Fair recommends attendees wear masks indoors but does not require it.

Is it safe to take kids to the fair?

Another tricky situation: The COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been approved for use in kids under 12. Aigner Davis recommended families make “smart decisions” about how to safely bring kids to the fair. Her recommendations:

  • Wear masks
  • Social distance
  • Wash hands frequently and bring hand sanitizer to keep clean in areas without hand-washing stations
  • Attend the fair at less-busy times

“This virus does not discriminate,” Aigner Davis said. “It effects the old, the young, the healthy, the sick. We have seen kids coming down with it.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.

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