Fairgoers line the walkway during the 2019 Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. For a second straight year, organizers have canceled the in-person fair over COVID-19 concerns. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

The Common Ground Country Fair in Unity has canceled its in-person activities this year because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, organizers said late Wednesday.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which organizes the fair, made the announcement “with heavy hearts” in an emailed message Wednesday evening just weeks before the festival was set to return like normal for its 50th anniversary.

“The ongoing pandemic, rising COVID-19 cases throughout Maine, and valuable feedback from our community have led us to this point,” Sarah Alexander, executive director of the association, said in a statement. “We did not come to this decision easily and know that people will have mixed reactions and emotions, as we all do.”

On Wednesday, Maine reported the biggest single-day total of new COVID-19 cases in four months as the delta variant continued to fuel a surge that’s also increased hospitalizations to their highest levels since winter.

Fair organizers said they ultimately decided that a “large-scale community building event should not take place in the current COVID-19 situation.” The fair has previously attracted about 60,000 people over its three-day run in late September.

Unity select board member Penny Sampson, informed of the news Wednesday evening, said her “jaw just hit the floor.”

Sampson said the event’s in-person cancellation could impact some businesses in Unity that benefit from the thousands of visitors, although “traffic will be less that weekend.”

“It comes as a shock they canceled with three weeks to go,” Sampson said in a phone interview.

Corry Pratt, who co-owns Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm with Robin Pratt, was not surprised to hear about the fair announcement because she had heard about plans to conduct ticket sales all online even as there were lingering questions about physical distancing. The alpaca farm, which is directly across the street from the fairgrounds entrance and helps shuttle people there, also traditionally has vendors of its own set up on the front lawn. Pratt will now need to contact those vendors with the news.

“It’s definitely a huge disappointment from a business perspective. The fair is an integral part of the community every year,” Pratt said. “From a health perspective, I’m a bit relieved and understanding.”

Organizers did not hold the in-person fair last year, either, because of the pandemic. Instead, last year’s festival was an online event that featured video presentations.

The annual festival, which highlights rural living with food and craft vendors, animals, demonstrations and keynote speeches about modern issues facing agriculture and the environment, is the product of more than 300 volunteers working year-round on planning and another 2,000 volunteers during the event.

“So many people have worked very hard to put on a 2021 fair, including countless volunteer hours,” Alexander said in her statement. “We honor the hard work and dedication of all who make the Fair happen each year.”

The decision to not return the fair to an in-person event for the second year in a row, and on the 50th anniversary, is “devastating,” said Stacy Brenner, MOFGA’s board president who is also a farmer and state senator.

“With that said, I’m also a nurse-midwife and looking at the public health data and the epidemiological information. It’s clear that as a community, we are not done worrying about COVID-19,” Brenner said.” My heart feels heavy but I am grateful to work within such a deliberative process and as part of such a thoughtful team.”

It was not immediately clear whether the Common Ground Country Fair would aim to replicate the online-only experience offered last year, but organizers said in their statement that “plans include creating videos of educational content that will be made available at no charge to the public and released during the weekend of the Fair at mofga.org.” They’re also exploring “support for vendors and exhibitors through MOFGA’s online store and brick and mortar location at The Maine Organic Marketplace in Freeport; and determining if it will be possible to host smaller events in Unity to highlight areas of the Fair throughout the fall in a safe manner.”

Fair organizers said they’re hopeful the fair can return in-person Sept. 23-25, 2022.

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