The Minnesota State Fair is back. Here’s what’s new and what’s changed.

After a one-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota State Fair returns Thursday.

And this year’s 12-day event, which is being referred to as the Great Minnesota “Get-Back-Together,” is bound to be one unlike any other, with social distancing and face masks going hand-in-hand with cookies and ears of corn.

Before attending, State Fair officials say, people should consider their personal health situation and how best they can keep themselves and others close to them safe and healthy. The Minnesota Department of Health advises individuals who are not yet fully vaccinated for COVID-19, immunocompromised individuals and their caregivers to reduce their risk by using layered protections such as avoiding large gatherings and wearing a face mask indoors and outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

“In the first time in my 50-plus years here, we are discouraging attendance,” State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said. “We’re asking people to make informed decisions on whether or not to attend the Fair. And if you have any concerns at all, we’ll see you next year.”

The State Fair attracts more than 2 million visitors annually, and a record of 2,126,551 people attended in 2019. A one-day attendance record was set on a Saturday in 2018 when 270,426 people visited.

Hammer said they are expecting smaller crowds this year because of COVID concerns and that this year’s budget is based off an attendance of 1.5 million.

HEALTH GUIDELINES

The Fair is urging visitors to follow state Department of Health guidelines, such as getting vaccinated beforehand or at the Fair, social distancing and mask-wearing for everyone over 2 years old indoors and outdoors in crowded settings.

In addition, some independent vendor booths may require masks, according to the Fair.

Attending at non-peak times, such as a weekday, is also encouraged.

Federal regulations require all public transportation passengers to wear masks while they are waiting for and on a bus (those under age 2 or who are medically not able to tolerate a mask are exempt).

There will be free hand sanitizer stations throughout the Fairgrounds, particularly near information booths, to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Fairgoers are encouraged to bring their own masks — but if one forgets, they will be available at entrance gates. And while encouraged, the masks are not required.

Health officials also suggest getting tested for COVID-19 three to five days after attending a large event.

WHAT’S NEW

A mural park, a roller coaster and a century of the iconic Cattle Barn are among the highlights of the new attractions, exhibits, vendors and programs.

There are nine new food vendors this year among the more than 300 that offer nearly 500 foods. New vendors include Auntie M’s Gluten Free, Baba’s, Fluffy’s Hand Cut Donuts and Libby’s Ice Cream & Co.

A new State Fair app allows users to quickly search food, merchandise and the schedule. It is not available in the Apple App Store but can be downloaded by typing app.mnstatefair.org into Safari (for iOS) or Chrome (for Android).

The State Fair website has a new section, “Updates to Know Before You Go,” with information about what’s new and changed. It can be found at mnstatefair.org/updates.

WHAT’S CHANGED

Some Fair favorites will be missing this year, due to “pandemic-related issues and operational challenges,” according to the State Fair website. Missing this year will be 3rd Lair SkatePark, EquiMania!, the Festival of Nations Demonstration Stage, Giant Sing Along, Go Karts, the Great Big Sandbox, Laser Encore’s Laser Hitz Show and the River Raft Ride.

The CHS Miracle of Birth Center won’t have live animal births this summer but will showcase dozens of newborn farm animals.

The popular 4-H Llama-Alpaca Costume Competition (where 4-Hers and their llamas dress in complementary costumes) moves to the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum for more audience seating on Sept. 1. Adventure Park, with thrill attractions like the Sling Shot and Turbo Bungy, will be located on the south side of Judson Avenue between the CHS Miracle of Birth Center and the Dairy Building. FFA Agriculture Technology Exhibits will move to the Ag-Hort Building.

About 150 vendors have pulled out of this year’s Fair either because of COVID-19 uneasiness, staffing shortages or product-supply chain issues, according to Fair officials. That’s double the amount of vendors that chose to forego the Fair compared with recent years. Only one food vendor will not be back, officials said.

BEFORE YOU GO

In an effort to help reduce congestion, the Fair will introduce on its website the new “Gopher Gauge” that tells users how crowded it is. It will not be based on exact attendance numbers, but rather on what guests are experiencing at the time.

When the Fairgrounds are busier, the gauge will say “Three Fairchilds.” When the Fairgrounds are more open and less busy, the gauge will say “One Fairchild,” and when moderate, it will show two. The gauge will be updated regularly throughout the day.

In 1966, Fairchild the gopher became the official mascot of the State Fair. The mascot’s name is a tribute to Henry S. Fairchild, who suggested the Ramsey County Poor Farm become the permanent site of the State Fair.

The “Gopher Gauge” link can be found on the “Updates” page, mnstatefair.org/updates/.

GETTING THERE

Approximately half of the Fair’s 2 million guests travel to the event via mass transit, according to Fair officials.

Metro Transit, SouthWest Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority offer express bus service from locations around the metro for a small fee. Metro Transit has scaled back its express operations due to a driver shortage. Locations can be found at www.metrotransit.org/state-fair-express.

The Fair operates 27 free park-and-ride locations a short distance from the Fairgrounds. Locations can be found on mnstatefair.org.

HOURS

Fairgrounds: 6 a.m. to midnight; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Labor Day

Fairgrounds Gates (ticket booths): 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Labor Day

ADMISSION

Regular fair-time admission tickets are on sale Thursday through Labor Day. Tickets: Adults (13-64) $16, seniors (65+) $14, kids (5-12) $14, children (4 and under) free

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