Southwest Washington Fairgrounds Ready to Juggle Vaccinations, Jury Selection and Community Events

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After a quiet start to 2021, Southwest Washington Fairgrounds staffer Pat Slusher Jr. says the fairgrounds might be busier than ever this year despite the pandemic. Lewis County announced this week that the fairgrounds can begin scheduling events again under Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. 

“I think we’re going to have more (events) than we’ve ever had, because we’re getting calls from out of county,” Slusher said Tuesday. “People are dying to do things.”

The announcement means that bookings can resume, but it’ll be a week or so before Slusher and other fairgrounds staff have a clear picture of the 2021 events schedule. 

“Everybody can’t turn it on a dime. Everybody’s got to contact all their vendors and go through all those things,” he said. 

Per state guidelines, fairground events can resume at 25% capacity or 200 people (excluding staff), whichever is fewer. For “very large venues” over 100,000 square feet, events will be capped at 300 people. 

First, the fairgrounds has to bring back its staff after several months of virtually no events. The pandemic and subsequent cancelation of the 2020 fair induced major economic decline for the facility, which ultimately led to the county laying off its fair and events manager. 

What’s clear so far, Slusher said, is that the Country Chicks market — with over 100 vendors selling “shabby chic” home goods — will likely be back in June, and the gun show is set to return. 

He noted that residents should not take the recent cancelation of the Spring Youth Fair as an indication of what the fairgrounds’ schedule will look like in coming months. 

In a normal year, the fairgrounds are activated for events about 200 days out of the year. Now, events will have to be scheduled alongside jury selection — still being held at the facility to maintain social distancing between jurors — as well as mass vaccination events. Slusher, along with Public Health Director J.P. Anderson, said the mass vaccination events and fairground events will not interfere with each other. 

“It will be coordinated and vaccine work will not be inhibited,” Anderson said via text. 

Slusher said it’ll be like putting together a puzzle, and that he’s not majorly concerned about scheduling around vaccine events. 

Lewis County helped Providence set up the community’s first COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic in late January, later finalizing an agreement to continue using the fairgrounds for that purpose. Another clinic is planned for next week. 

County officials also submitted a proposal at the state’s request detailing how the fairgrounds could be used as one of the state-run mass vaccination sites. 

A full-time, state-run vaccination clinic would certainly throw a wrench into the fairgrounds’ plans for events. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards, according to Anderson. Weeks after submitting their proposal, county officials have yet to hear back, and are unsure if the state still has plans for more mass vaccination sites, which have been criticized by some local officials as being inaccessible and hindering local efforts. 

Slusher says the level of callers expressing interest in hosting events is likely due to other event spaces being converted into full-time vaccine sites. The Benton County Fairgrounds and the Clark County Fairgrounds, for example, host two of the state’s four mass clinics. Wenatchee’s Town Toyota Center and the Spokane Arena host the other two.

“There are other facilities where they’re taking them over full-time, and that’s not the case here … it won’t hinder anything,” Slusher said. “The thing about the fairgrounds, and a lot of people don’t realize, is it’s really a multi-use type of facility. We can accommodate a lot of different things going at one time.”