Let’s be real: The summer of 2020 has been a bust. How can we even call it a summer if there were no Ferris wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls or midway carnival games? All nine in-person Bay Area county fairs were canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A handful of the organizers, including the nonprofit that puts on the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, took this peculiar moment in history as a chance to experiment with new ways to keep their communities engaged — while following state and county health orders that require social distancing — and found success.
“‘Pivoting’ has become the word of 2020,” says Angel Moore, vice president for business development at the Alameda County Fair Association. When the Alameda County shelter-in-place orders took effect in March, “we knew we had to pivot quickly. We started thinking about ways we could connect virtually with guests to bring pieces of the fair to our community.”
So while you couldn’t cruise the Sky Ride over the midway or take your shot for an oversize teddy bear at a shooting gallery this summer, the Alameda County Fair Association organized Grab-n-Go Food Trucks — now called Grab-n-Stay Food Trucks — at the fairgrounds where fair-food lovers can go get their fix of corn dogs, funnel cakes, churros, cotton candy, and turkey legs on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Because it’s the Bay Area, naturally the fair also offers a handful of gourmet food trucks to appeal to the foodies each weekend. At first, the food trucks were takeout only, but since June 19, visitors have been allowed to have a socially distanced picnic on the fairgrounds lawn. “For the amount of people we’re getting, it feels like a tremendous amount of space,” Moore said.
The fair association’s most popular COVID endeavors have been its drive-in events — both movies and concerts. The movies have been shown at the fairgrounds every Friday and Saturday night since June 12. This weekend, the Under the Stars Drive-In Movies will screen “The Secret Life of Pets” on Friday and “Forrest Gump” on Saturday. Both have sold out all 200 parking spots, but more movie screenings, including “Shrek” on Aug. 6, are planned for the coming weeks. Tickets for “Shrek” go on sale at 9 a.m. Friday.
“We’ve been selling out some movies, like ‘The Sandlot,’ within a minute,” Moore said. “It’s been tremendous. Even though it’s different being in your car, people want to come together as a community. People are just happy to have some sense of normalcy.
“We spread the cars out, parked in every other spot, in a checkerboard fashion,” and the movie sound is broadcast on a short-range FM radio station, Moore explains. “Some guests sit in the back of their trucks and wear their masks, while other guests stay in their vehicles.”
Tickets go for $35-$40 per vehicle, which is steep for a date, but not for a family or household pod of four or more. However, the money goes to good causes (in addition to supporting the fair and its workers).
“We realized a lot of the nonprofits we usually work with during the fair, like Valley Humane Society and the George Mark Children’s House, were really struggling to get donations,” Moore said. “We started giving a percentage of what we were making on the movies to those organizations. So we’ve been able to give over $5,000 to nonprofits we would generally work with during the annual fair.”
Tickets are still available for Friday’s and Saturday’s drive-in live music concerts, produced by Spider Ranch Productions, featuring the classic-rock tribute bands, Huntington Beach’s Aeromyth (Aerosmith); Concord’s Hot for Teacher (Van Halen); and Sacramento’s Invincible (Pat Benatar). If you can fit six people into your SUV, the per-car ticket price of $120 goes down to $20 a head. Both concert and movie ticket holders have access to the food trucks.
While this show will be live, seeing a tribute band is a bit like seeing a facsimile of the original group. Last weekend, the fair association hosted another drive-in simulation of the old live-concert experience, a screening of a pre-filmed Blake Shelton concert, featuring his wife, No Doubt singer-songwriter Gwen Stefani, and country star Trace Adkins, broadcast to 300 locations around the United States by Encore Live. That was the second Encore Live experience the fairgrounds hosted; the first was a June 27 pre-recorded concert broadcast starring Garth Brooks. The fairgrounds will also host the next Encore Live concert at the end of August, headliner to be announced.
Moore says the Encore Live events, which cost around $115 per vehicle, have been selling out quickly, because “people are dying to do this stuff,” and music lovers “want to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime drive-in concert experience.”
Even though fair season is coming to a close, the Alameda County Fair Association plans to keep hosting drive-in movies and concerts, including a live show featuring local country bands covering their favorite tunes, through Labor Day weekend. Dubstep acts Blunts & Blondes, HE$H & Triple F will perform at a drive-in concert with a drive-thru bar put on at the fairgrounds by Vital Events on Aug. 7; tickets range from $25-$70 per car. Another Vital Events show featuring DJ Subtronics on Aug. 29 has already sold out.
The Alameda County Fair Association is currently working out how to set up a drive-thru haunted experience to modify the annual walk-through Pirates of Emerson Haunted Theme Park in October, as grabbing the hand of a stranger and screaming while a demon chases you with a chainsaw is no longer considered a safe activity. Tickets will be $94.99 per vehicle.
The decision to cancel the 108-year-old fair, which was scheduled for June 19-July 12, was a devastating one. The Alameda County Fair Association is a nonprofit organization that doesn’t receive taxpayer funds, and Moore estimates the fair had to lay off between 50% to 60% of its employees.
The fairgrounds, which hosts the fair and 300 other events year-round, brings in $32 million to the local economy each year, and the summer fair alone creates 900 extra jobs. Fairgoers, performers, and vendors from around California — and even from outside the state — bring in revenue to shops, restaurants and hotels stretching from Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin, to Castro Valley and Fremont.
“The decision to cancel the fair was a hard decision, but the right decision due to COVID-19,” Moore said. “The fair is a time-honored tradition that brings the community together, building lifelong memories. The fair fills hotels, restaurants, local shopping districts, and grocery stores with vendors, entertainers, and fairgoers. Think about the impact to all communities across the nation who have lost their fairs.”
Moore and the Alameda County Fair Association team put their heads together to figure out what aspects of the fair could be put on in a virtual manner. For example, the annual fundraising Sun’s Out, Fun’s Out, a 5K or 1-mile walk/run, was altered so that registered runners and walkers did the fun run on their own. Only about 150 people participated, but with supplementation from another fundraiser, the fair raised $5,000 for Sunflower Hill, a Livermore nonprofit that creates residential communities and programs for adults with developmental disabilities.
On July 12, the Alameda County 4-H and Future Farmers of America animal exhibitors auctioned 233 lots of prized sheep, goats, pigs and steer online, with the help of videos and pictures. “The fair industry pivoted to taking livestock auctions online almost immediately, and we were able to learn from those fairs,” Moore said. “The online auction was the best way to support the kids who had worked so hard on their 4-H and FFA projects.”
Local youth and adults were still able to submit more than 4,500 entries into traditional fair contests this summer, including fine art, sewing, needlework, decorated and baked foods, miniatures, paper crafts, knitting, table setting, woodworking, gardening, and more, but there were no cash prizes. Since most of the contests were judged virtually based on photos, the judges took it in good faith the participants were submitting their own work.
The Alameda County Fair Association also continued to host six weekends of live horse racing through July 26 — just with no spectators in the stands. When outdoor dining was allowed in Alameda County, spectators who made pre-ordered dinner reservations for the Trackside Terrace and passed a health screening were allowed to have a socially distanced meal during the races, but everyone watching the races, online or in person, had to bet online or through an app on their phone. Depending on the night, the outdoor restaurant had anywhere between 40 and 100 race spectators, whooping and cheering on the horses they bet on while wearing masks.
“To be honest, it was very different,” Moore said, “quiet, no crowd roar. The people at the Trackside Terrace were cheering at their tables, and they were getting excited. But we didn’t have thousands and thousands of people there. Still, the people that went with their social bubble were grateful to be out.”
Of course, the Alameda County Fair Association is not alone in trying to connect its community during shelter-in-place orders.
“We talk all the time to other fairs to see what they are doing,” Moore said. “Most of them canceled this year due to the COVID pandemic. Many of us are doing the fair-food drive-thrus now. And many fairs are starting to do drive-in movies and concerts. So we talk and say, ‘OK, what’s working?’ Our biggest recommendation always is make sure you’re checking your county health order because that is going to drive what you are allowed to do.”
Other area fair events
The Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma is also hosting a Drive-Thru Fair Food experience through Sunday that lets would-be fairgoers pick up corn dogs, funnel cakes, candy apples, cotton candy, fried Oreos, and Caribbean jerk pizza. Instead of its in-person event, which was planned for June 24-28, the Petaluma fairgrounds hosted a “Virtual Fair,” encouraging families to play classic board games, enter the online Contest of the Day, take funny family photos, watch online tutorials like a class on balloon art, learn farm-to-table recipes, watch educational videos on agriculture, and have “farm fun” like a water-bucket relay at home.
The annual Petaluma Music Festival, held at the fairgrounds every year, has gone online, and will take place this Saturday, from noon to 11 p.m. The virtual streaming show, a benefit for Petaluma school music-education programs, will feature Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the Mother Hips, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Moonalice, the Motet, Railroad Earth, Ron Artis II, the Wood Brothers, and more.
The Solano County Fair in Vallejo, which went virtual on June 18-21, also hosted an online youth livestock auction and a virtual exhibition of youth-made arts and crafts, clothing and textiles, graphic arts, photography, horticulture and more. The streaming event — watched by 4,997 people over four days — included cooking, taekwondo and Zumba classes, chick hatching and baby bunnies, children’s story time, spoken word, a Solano Symphony Orchestra concert, blues by Ronnie Stewart and Alvon Johnson, and a ballet folklórico performance. Like the Alameda County Fair, the Solano County Fair hosted live horse racing over four weeks, limited to 50 spectators at a time.
The Santa Clara County Fair in San Jose, whose junior livestock auction will be hosted online on Aug. 8, is putting on several virtual shows for fans of animals and livestock starting on Aug. 3 — dogs, goats, rabbits, sheep, swine, cavies, cattle, and chickens will all be showcased.
Thanks to these innovative fair planners, the taste of fried Oreos, some creative family-fun activities, online contests, streaming events, and drive-in movies have helped Bay Area families get through the dog days of summer 2020, though without the flashy thrills of carnival rides.
As for the rest of the year, the Alameda County Fair Association plans to keep offering locals safe ways to come together outside the house, but the organizers are taking it month by month to see how the winds shift — whether that’s literal winds sending rain clouds to drive-in gatherings, or a cultural shift in what stir-crazy crowds miss, or a dramatic change in government public-health directives.
“Safely bringing people together, that’s our No. 1 goal, always,” Moore said. “And No. 2 is doing things that are in alignment with our mission, which is celebrating the heritage and diversity of our community. We’re constantly trying to find new ways to do that.
“We’re getting all sorts of people — bands, comedians, documentary filmmakers — reaching out to us, more than ever, because everybody in the events and entertainment industry is really struggling,” she said. “We’re trying to pivot, be innovative, and disrupt what we knew as the events business — because we have to.”
• Alameda County Fairgrounds: To buy tickets to see “Shrek” on Aug. 6 at the drive-in movie, go here, and check here for future movies. To buy tickets to this weekend’s tribute concerts featuring Aeromyth, Hot for Teacher and Invincible, go here, and tickets to the Aug. 7 dubstep show featuring Blunts & Blondes, HE$H & Triple F, go here. Grab-N-Stay Food Trucks are open 6-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; find menus here. Tickets for October’s Pirates of Emerson Haunted Theme Park are available here. All events are at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton.
• Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds: Drive-Thru Fair Food is open from noon-7 p.m. Friday and noon-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, 175 Fairgrounds Drive, Petaluma. Visit the fair’s website for more information.
• Santa Clara County Fair: Watch the virtual fair, with its animal shows and livestock auctions happening Aug. 3- 8, here.
* Want to help save California’s fairgrounds, which are threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic? Find out how you can donate, volunteer, and show your support at Calling All Communities.