City council members voiced strong opinions pro and con on Tuesday over whether to hold the annual fair, even as local health leaders said they think it can be held safely and would be good for community morale.
City leaders will be asking Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson and Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough what they think about holding the fair, after Mayor Pro Tem D.D. Adams said a fair would add more stress to officers who “have not gotten a break” from the pace of crime.
Adams said the fair could be a “superspreader on steroids,” and said “there is no shame in shutting down this event.”
Council Member Robert Clark said he will be at a Wake Forest University football game here on Saturday “where there will be 30,000 people and no masks.”
“If we wait until there is no risk, we would never have school again, we would never have ball games,” Clark said.
The Carolina Classic Fair is slated to start here on Oct. 1 and marketing efforts are already underway. Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe told members of the city council on Tuesday that a decision on whether to go forward with the fair should be made “sooner rather than later” because of the preparations involved.
Rowe made his remarks during an online meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council’s general government committee. Fair discussions look likely to stretch at least until Monday, when the full council meets.
The committee heard from Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease specialist with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, and Joshua Swift, the county’s health director. Both spoke favorably about going forward with the fair.
“I think the risk is low enough to have the fair, and high enough to take precautions,” Swift said, adding that the fair would give people “positive recreation” and “some sense of normalcy.”
If the fair does take place, people will be required to wear masks when indoors and strongly encouraged to wear them at all other times. A host of planned safety precautions include hand sanitizers in abundance, keeping different family groups apart on rides and honor-system health questions for visitors and staff.
Ohl said he’s seen no evidence that college football and other outdoor sporting events have led to any major COVID-19 outbreaks, and talked up the need for young people “who have given up so much” during the time of coronavirus to have something fun to do.
“I think the fair could go on,” Ohl said. “I think we would have a low probability of having extensive problems.”
Although Forsyth County and the rest of the state saw a late-summer spike in COVID-19, Ohl said he expects the rate of infection to decline as October approaches. The fair would run Oct. 1-10.
Since most things that people do at the fair are outdoors, Ohl said, the outdoor rides and events should be “pretty safe.”
Council Member Jeff MacIntosh said he thinks the safety plans that have been drawn up will be “hard to carry out,” and that the fair, as a regional draw, would bring in many people from counties with higher rates of COVID-19.
“On a Friday or Saturday, the bodies are going to be pretty packed around the midway,” MacIntosh said. “My other concern is the carnies. That is a tough crowd to regulate. I have some pretty serious concerns going forward.”
Council Member Annette Scippio called it “not a great assumption” that people are going to wear masks when so many refuse to do so. But she concluded by saying the fair should take place.
“It will minimize our stress over being cooped up, and people can have a good time again,” she said. “I think people who really understand what is going on with the virus will wear their masks or not come.”
Adams took a firm stand against holding the fair, citing both health concerns and the effort of policing the fair.
“I believe that right now the fair is not a good idea,” she said, adding that cases are up among young people and that holding the fair would send mixed messages about taking the virus and the need for vaccination seriously.
Adams added that it would be an extra burden to task law enforcement officers to manage people at the fair on top of “trying to keep us safe from shootings and fights.” Although city officials have said they don’t expect police to enforce any mask mandates, they acknowledge that police may be called on if persuasion doesn’t work.
“Now we are going to have a fair that will claim to make young people happy,” Adams said. “And yet we ... are not willing to make people wear a mask.”
City Manager Lee Garrity said police are short-staffed and that fewer officers would be available to work the fair than in years past. That’s a concern, he said.
Capt. Richard Newnum, a police officer who joined the meeting, said the city needs to be aware of what police can do.
“We need to be very careful and cognizant of the police department’s ability to keep 12-year-olds and 19-year-olds on the midway from being on top of each other,” he said.
"I believe that right now the fair is not a good idea."
D.D. Adams, Mayor Pro Tem