Summer fairs return even if they are scaled back because of COVID restrictions

Carnival rides are roaring again at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

This year, the fair has a sub-title, "The Summer Fun Fest," acknowledging it's been downsized due to COVID-19. 

But in addition to rides, the fair offers all the food favorites, even the not-so-traditional donut-burger. 

"Everybody who calls says 'thank you so much for doing this, thank you,'" Fair CEO Becky Bartling said.

"Fairs are such a tradition, family reunions, seeing people they haven't seen in years and we felt this was something we could do."

The fairgrounds, in Santa Rosa, will limit attendance to 10,000 daily.

There is one carnival midway instead of two, combining the thrill rides with the little-kid rides.

Missing are the competitive exhibits, the Flower Show, and horse racing.

But there are clothing and crafts vendors, both outdoors and indoors, where masks are mandatory.

"We're all happy something is coming back and hope it stays," said Lorrie Sutton, of Orland in Glenn County.

Sutton and her husband have been selling funnel cakes at the Sonoma County Fair for 30 years.

This year they have one booth instead of two, as the California fair circuit continues to recover.   

"It's hit or miss, we will have a fair, then two fairs will cancel and we'll have two weeks off and do nothing, then another fair," said Sutton.

Livestock judging has returned, and Thursday evening, young exhibitors were parading their goats before judges.

"We didn't know how this would play out, if parents could come watch, but we're grateful for the outcome," said Sarah Richardson, a Sonoma FFA leader.

Last year, the 4-H and Future Farmers of America members had to show their animals virtually, with photos and videos.

This year, they can compete in person with an audience watching from the stands.

"Before they really didn't get the full experience, and for some, it's their first time in the show ring," said Richardson.

"So they're nervous and we're also very excited for them." 

The fair will also offer a professional rodeo competition on July 31 and a Mexican rodeo on Aug 1, plus a Monster Trucks event on Aug 7 and Destruction Derby on Aug 8.

Every day, there is live music on multiple stages.

So far, operators of carnival games say it's been slow. 

"A lot of people are still scared, the pandemic is hurting the fairs," said Keith Nixon, who offers darts 3 for $5 to pop balloons.

Nixon spent last summer working in a grocery warehouse as festivals and fairs were nonexistent. 

He's had an up and down summer so far, with weekends always busiest.

"I've been here for 26 years, so I know the game, I know how to get them in and out and get the money," Nixon smiled.

Win or lose, fair-goers just seemed to delight in the familiar sights and sounds.   

"This hits the bases, almost all the bases," said Santa Rosa mom Nicole Provance, amid the rides with her sons, 5 and 10.

"This was my fair growing up, and I'm so excited it's back," said Provance.

"A little smaller but it's great for the kids and for us to finally get out and do something fun!"

The Summer Fun Fest runs July 28-Aug 8, closed Monday and Tuesday.

Admission is $13 for age 13 and older, $5 for ages 6-12 and free for children 5 and under.

A carnival wristband is separate, for $25.

Tickets are by presale at

And there is a way to get in for free.

"We are giving people a free ticket to the fair and a free carnival ride if they get vaccinated at our Jockey Club," said Bartling.

The Jockey Club is adjacent to the fairgrounds at 1450 Bennett Valley Road, and vaccination hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the Summer Fun Fest.

Vaccinations are free and the public can choose which of three vaccines they want.