The Whitman County commissioners agreed Tuesday to give the Palouse Empire Fair Board more time to plan how to hold the fair this fall under Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The commissioners voted to suspend fair-related expenditures until they consider that plan during their June 15 meeting. The motion, written by Commissioner Michael Largent, directs the fair board to specify how to conduct a fair under the expectation that Washington will be in Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s tiered approach to reopening the state.

Under Phase 3, as it is currently written, gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited.

The fair board is tasked with ensuring there is sufficient staff and volunteers to conduct fair events under Phase 3 restrictions and come up with a realistic plan to cover additional costs over what is currently budgeted for the fair.

The fair is scheduled for Sept. 10-13.

Phase 4 allows gatherings of more than 50 people. However, Washington Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman told the state Association of Counties that he does not expect Washington to enter Phase 4 in 2020.

Based on information from Wiesman, Commissioner Art Swannack said this is because of the likelihood of a second surge of COVID-19 cases, the unavailability of a vaccine, the logistical problems of contact tracing if there is an infection, and the health care system’s ability to respond.

As for school gatherings and other fall events like college football games, Whitman County Health Officer Dr. Brad Bowman said the state has made no concrete decision yet that specifically addresses these issues.

Bowman recommended canceling the Palouse Empire Fair in the interest of public safety. He said there is a high risk of a second surge of COVID-19 cases around when Washington State University students return to Pullman for the fall semester and local public schools begin the new school year.

“From a medical standpoint, it’s really hard to justify that kind of a gathering,” said Bowman, who has the authority to cancel the fair.

Bowman said it’s not just the amount of COVID-19 cases that concerns him, but whether the hospitals have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases.

Commissioner Dean Kinzer said the county could also face sanctions from the state if it violates Washington regulations. Swannack said commissioners are sworn to uphold the law.

Largent said the commissioners have heard from the public about the fair’s importance to the community, especially for the students who participate. However, he said the community has to accept the governor’s orders.

“It is a playing field we are on and we can’t change,” he said.

Swannack said the commissioners acknowledge that the fair, if it is held, will not happen the way people are used to.

“It’s going to be a little different and the fair board has the knowledge along with staff to figure out how to craft that,” he said.

Kuipers can be reached at akuipers@dnews.com.

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