The North Carolina State Fair opened Thursday. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the annual festivities last year, but the fair is back in full swing for 2021.

The coronavirus has not gone away in the past year. In fact, North Carolina is still seeing high case numbers from the recent surge from the highly contagious delta variant.

Many people are anxious to get back to the annual fall rituals of Ferris wheels and turkey legs, but others are wary as the virus continues to sicken people across North Carolina.

Here’s what we know about COVID-19 protocols at the fair and how to stay safe:


What are the mask rules?

Masks are recommended, but not required, for people both attending and working at the fair. The mask guidelines go for both indoor and outdoor spaces.

“The number one thing people tell us, they come to the fair for is food. This makes it extremely difficult on our staff and public safety officers to enforce a mask mandate,” state fair organizers said.

“We are urging you to do your part and wear your face covering except when you are eating and drinking and when you cannot remain socially distanced, especially inside buildings and tents,” they said.

The fair will have disposable masks available at the ticket gates and guest service areas.


How about vaccines?

Like masks, the fair recommends people be fully vaccinated before attending, but they’re not requiring it.

“While we will not require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test for admission to the fair, we strongly encourage everyone to go out and get vaccinated,” fair organizers said.

There will be a spot at the fair for people who decide to get a vaccine with their fried Twinkie.

The First United Methodist Church of Cary will be working with public health agencies to offer free vaccines in its restaurant space near Dorton Arena.


What is the risk of going to the fair?

This might not be the right year for some people to go to the state fair. The state Department of Health and Human Services warns people who are not fully vaccinated to consider that they might be exposed the virus. The department also says people should be wearing a mask in indoor areas and crowded areas outside.

“We want each and every one of you to make the best decision for your personal health and safety that you can,” fair organizers said.

"We know masks do work and distancing works, but that’s really hard to do in such a crowded venue," Dr. Anita Skariah, a pediatrician with UNC Health in Hillsborough. "It’s going to be hard to differentiate who’s vaccinated, who’s not vaccinated, who has COVID and has come to the fair."

She said people can lower their risk by avoiding crowds.

"Try to choose less crowded times and less crowded days, so like during weekdays or before noon," Skariah said. "Try to avoid rides with people screaming and spewing droplets, that’s just not worth it this year."


How can I stay safe in the crowd?

For Duke pediatrician Dr. Michael Smith, the answer is clear: wear a mask whenever you’re in a crowded outdoor area. That’s especially true for unvaccinated children and people with children or who live with others at higher risk.

“While it’s true that being outside is a much lower risk than being inside, anytime you have large groups of people from different households mingling at the same spot, that can be a recipe for disaster,” he said.

“Being outside, if you can truly stay away from other people, that’s the safest options,” he said. “I think people just need to be a little more careful than in prior years.”


What about eating?

“The worst-case scenario here is you have a bunch of people walking around, stuffing food in their mouth. Let’s be honest, that’s the whole point of going to the state fair,” Smith said. “That’s a real high risk.”

He said he knows this will be unpopular advice, but “if you’re actively eating or drinking, I would ask people to find a place where they can sit away from people.”

So, you can still eat your annual funnel cake, but the best thing to do is find a place with some social distance before you take off your mask and get powdered sugar all over your face.