Wisconsin State Fair canceled for first time since 1945

There will be no cream puffs, concerts, 4-H exhibits, rides on the midway or foods on a stick in Wisconsin this year.

For the first time since World War II, and just the sixth time in 169 years, the Wisconsin State Fair has been canceled. The venerable event held every August outside of Milwaukee was called off Thursday due to the coronavirus pandemic, the latest in a long line of cancellations of major events both in Wisconsin and nationwide.

The cancellation marks only the second time the fair was called off for a reason other than a war.

The announcement was expected as fairs in other states, including neighboring Minnesota, have also been called off. Wisconsin organizers said that even though they had hoped to somehow pull off the event in the face of the pandemic, it just couldn't be safely done.

"Please know that the decision to cancel the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair was not taken lightly," State Fair board chairman John Yingling said in a statement. "Months of deliberation took place, considering all options to host a Fair that adheres to the highest standard of safety without compromising the experience. We explored countless models, but ultimately safety cannot be compromised. The risks associated with hosting an event of this size and scope right now are just too great."

The fair board gave Yingling the power on Tuesday to decide whether to proceed with the event. There is no state prohibition on large gatherings, after the Wisconsin State Court invalidated Gov. Tony Evers' "safer at home" order two weeks ago, but the safety challenges of putting on an event that draws more than a million people over 11 days was too much to overcome, Yingling said.

The decision to cancel has Evers' support, the fair said in announcing the decision.

"The Wisconsin State Fair is so much more than just a fair — it is a celebration of everything we are so proud of in Wisconsin," said Kathleen O'Leary, CEO of Wisconsin State Fair Park in a statement. "We understand the magnitude of disappointment you may be feeling. We feel it too. However, safety is our top priority, and that cannot be compromised under any circumstance."

Numerous other events staged on the fairgrounds have also been canceled. The Expo Center is currently being used as an alternative care facility to handle patients in case of a surge of patients that overwhelms hospitals. As of Wednesday, there had been 16,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, with 539 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Tickets purchased for the fair this year will be valid for the 2021 fair, assuming that happens as scheduled. Refunds will also be offered through the end of June.

The state fair began in Janesville in 1851 and since 1892 it has been staged in West Allis. The last time it was canceled was in 1945, the last year of World War II. It was also not staged three years during the Civil War and in 1893 when the World's Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago.