106th PA Farm Show

A square dance competition is held during the 106th Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Few of the dancers wore face masks.

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg began Saturday and will continue through this week. This prized fixture on the commonwealth’s agricultural calendar draws visitors and participants from around the state to enjoy its vast offerings of food, farm exhibits and events ranging from livestock competitions and baking contests to square dancing, tractor pulls and honey extraction demonstrations. Its theme this year: “Harvesting More.”

We truly respect the importance of the Pennsylvania Farm Show to the state’s agricultural community, which includes a great many farmers, future farmers and food producers in Lancaster County.

All year long, young Lancaster County residents rose before dawn to care for animals they’re now showing at this annual celebration of agriculture, to the great pride of their parents and grandparents. Adults have raised the crops that have nourished us throughout this pandemic; their labor, unheralded day after day, finally gets its due at the Farm Show.

It was a major disappointment last year when the pandemic meant the show only could go on virtually. So no wonder people still want to attend, even as the omicron variant of COVID-19 rages.

We just wish state officials had made the Farm Show safer for not just the participants but visitors by requiring masks during this surge.

We had to wince at some of this week’s images of unmasked people mixing with other unmasked people at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Mickayla Miller wrote in an article published Sunday, information stations throughout the complex offered “masks and sanitizer, but those running the stands did not wear masks themselves.”

There were unmasked square dancers, sashaying and swaying as if nearby hospitals weren’t groaning under the strain of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Unmasked vendors serving unmasked customers. And unmasked spectators sitting without social distancing to watch the high school rodeo and other arena events.

As we’ve noted before, we seem to be living in two distinct realities: one in which hospital employees are putting their lives on the line to deal with the crush of sick people and another in which many of us blithely pretend that all is well.

This isn’t just true at the Farm Show. On Twitter, a Lancaster County high school student section account exhorted fans of the school’s boys basketball team to “pack the gym and get wild!” at Tuesday’s home game. Go, omicron.

A lack of adherence to basic pandemic precautions seems disrespectful to the farmers who worked so hard to get to the Farm Show. We fail to understand why masks are not required — merely recommended — in the Farm Show Complex and Expo Center, which is owned by the commonwealth and operated by the state Department of Agriculture.

Instead of instituting this commonsense measure, state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said this in a Jan. 3 media briefing: “For individuals who are concerned about their personal health or have family members or colleagues who are particularly vulnerable, this is not the year to attend.”

Early indications point to lower attendance numbers at the Farm Show so far this year. Even so, this is a popular event held indoors. And those who turn out are being met with merely halfhearted attempts — stacks of free masks, signs urging them to wear masks — to encourage them to do the right thing.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is operating a vaccination clinic at the Farm Show, offering COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots.

As Miller noted, the vaccination clinic is “located in the Main Hall, right next to a merry-go-round where unmasked children and parents closely inched up and down on the carousel horses Saturday afternoon.”

Given that people will need to walk through masses of unmasked people to get to the vaccination clinic, the phrase “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted” springs to mind.

Redding touted improvements to the Farm Show Complex — more aisle space, additional exhaust fans and an improved HVAC system — as measures that should help to curb viral transmission. These are useful, but they are not going to be able to fully counter the effects of milling hordes of unmasked visitors.

“We’ll keep stressing the personal choice,” Redding said, according to ABC27 News. “We will strongly encourage in our messaging to wear a mask. ... I think that’s going to be our message to folks and, quite frankly, I am hopeful that as they see others in the complex with masks on that they will follow suit.”

Hope, as they say, is not a strategy. It’s especially useless when we’ve seen countless instances in the past 22 months of people ignoring pandemic mitigation measures.

There are good reasons why PennAg Industries Association, a major vendor, backed out of the Farm Show this year.

The association, which traditionally has operated a large stand selling trout sandwiches, chicken nuggets and other Pennsylvania-cultivated foods, noted in a statement that agribusinesses have been “evaluating risks on an hourly basis” since the start of the pandemic “to ensure their team members were healthy and protected.”

Based on “daily risk analyses, and given the current health concerns, anticipated spikes in illness, shortages of staff and space at medical facilities, and the sheer nature of the enclosed Farm Show atmosphere,” the association said it made the “very hard decision” to forgo hosting its food booth this year.

Its decision was made out of an “overarching concern for our members’ well-being, and ability to keep their businesses open and operational, without risking the health of their employees.”

It was a pragmatic, smart and compassionate call. We wish Secretary Redding — and Gov. Tom Wolf — had exercised similar good judgment by, at minimum, mandating masks at the Farm Show.

We fear that what the Farm Show will be “harvesting more” of this year are increased COVID-19 case numbers that will further strain the commonwealth’s already overwhelmed hospitals.

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