SHELBY The 89th Cleveland County Fair opened Thursday still under a cloud from last year’s E. coli outbreak, but officials say increased safety measures are in place.
Health department staff and volunteers are manning hand-washing stations, demonstrating proper hand-washing techniques and even walking through crowds giving reminders about washing hands.
Last year’s outbreak resulted in 106 E. coli cases and a toddler’s death. In November, state and local health officials said the petting zoo at the fair was the focal point of the E. coli outbreak.
Seven civil suits filed by families of the victims have been consolidated in Gaston County and are under review by a Superior Court judge, said O. Max Gardner III, fair association attorney. No trial date has been set. A Tennessee-based petting zoo is also the target of a lawsuit.
Attendance at the 2012 fair totaled 165,000 and Interim Fair Manager Bobby Jenks hopes to hit a record 200,000 this year.
The petting zoo is missing from this year’s fair, and there are no animal-contact exhibits. There’s more signage and fencing and clear separation of animal exhibit areas and non-animal areas.
In addition to health professionals there are also plenty of police, highway patrol, fire and emergency personnel standing by.
“Probably the safest place you can be will be the Cleveland County Fairgrounds,” Gardner said. “Not just in terms of fears of catching a bacteria, but just in terms of general health. I don’t think there’s been a group with so many diverse government agencies. It’s like a little city.”
A Cleveland County Fair Study Commission began looking at ways to make the fair safer and announced its recommendations in June. Fair officials said they didn’t have enough time to get a state-of-the-art area for animal contact exhibits before the fair opened. That’s a possibility for next year.
Meanwhile, Gardner said the fair has implemented all the commission’s recommendations and gone beyond them, deciding against any animal-contact exhibits for this year.
The Cleveland County Health Department will have a strong presence during the fair’s 11-day run. Working with health department staff will be volunteers from nursing schools at Gardner-Webb University and Cleveland Community College.
DeShay Oliver, the department’s public information officer, said the number of hand-washing stations has been increased.
Cleveland County Health Director Dorothea Wyant said that with the preventive measures, along with educating the public on the importance of hand-washing “we are confident that the 2013 Cleveland County Fair will be a safer event for participants.”
On the midway, there’s a new 80-foot swing ride called Vertigo. Fairgoers will also see more exhibits, new flags, umbrella tables to sit under, checkerboard covers on trash cans and fiberglass animals, such as a zebra, hippo and lion.
“We’ve got a new look,” said Jenks. “And we’re hoping for a great fair.”
Founded in 1924 by the Shelby Kiwanis Club, the fair was a way to celebrate the county’s farm community, and it remains an agricultural fair.
Greg Traywick, Cleveland County Cooperative Extension director, said the fair allows farmers “to showcase their very best animals and crops and also educate the public about the importance of agriculture.”
Agriculture is a $100 million business in Cleveland County. .
Traywick, who is an ex-officio member of the fair association’s board of directors, said farmers work with their animals for months, grooming, training and preparing to show them.
“Qualified judges pick the best,” he said. “Winners get a cash prize, but more importantly, the bragging rights.”
In the past, fairgoers have been allowed to touch animals on exhibit, but not this year.
“The hands-on aspect with livestock is very critical,” Traywick said. “So many people now are two generations away from the farm. This is a way to help them learn about where our food and fiber comes from.
“We’re stepping back now. The E. coli outbreak was very unfortunate, but it’s the only time in the fair’s 89-year history anything like this has happened that we know of. We’ll get through this year and maybe get back next year to the traditional way of exhibiting animals.”
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