The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday February 27th

Was N.C. State Fair’s food festival COVID-safe? Vendors weigh in

The North Carolina State Fair is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Buy Photos The North Carolina State Fair is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Those missing deep-fried delicacies may have been relieved with the N.C. State Fair Division’s decision to hold a fair food festival instead. Others, however, called it a super-spreader event. 

The fair, originally scheduled for Oct. 15-25, was canceled in late July. In its place, the Fair Division advertised N.C. State Fair Food — an 11-day event featuring 22 local North Carolina fair vendors. A list of virtual vendors able to ship items was also advertised.

Criticism spread on Twitter as news stations documented large crowds and mask-less eating, even though the event was meant to be take-out only.  

However, the vendors, who had to be there each day of the event, had to balance the risks with the tradition. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences.

'We draw strength from each other'

Chris Wrenn, owner of Ragin' Cajun, said COVID-19 safety protocols at the event were palpable. Besides the basics like mask-wearing and more hand-washing stations, vendors were subject to routine inspections by health officials.

“They’d come by and say ‘Hey, you need to spread people out in your line — take some ownership — not just of your tent or your trailer,'” he said.

Ragin’ Cajun is a family-owned business based out of Kipling, North Carolina, and has served food at the N.C. State Fair for nine years.

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to the Fair Division for comment, but they did not respond.

Wrenn does not agree with the judgment of the food festival as a super-spreader event. Most people were wearing masks, he said, and it helped that the event was outside. For him, it was no different than going grocery shopping — and the feeling of normalcy was welcomed.

“My personal feeling is when we’re around each other, we draw strength from each other,” he said.

He said mental health is a valid concern as the state enters its ninth month reckoning with COVID-19. 

“We’ve all been looking at computer screens, been on the phone a lot — we’re starving to be around other people,” he said. 

'A deep-fried anything is not worth my life'

Felicia Turrentine-Daniel of Chef’s D’Lites was unable to participate in this year’s event on what would have been the business’ 21st year at the N.C. State Fair.

“We got the call probably two weeks before (the event) was supposed to happen,” she said. “It’s one thing if you’re setting up for a one-day event.” 

Given the commute to the fairgrounds from her home in Greensboro and the months of planning required to operate, Turrentine-Daniel said participating was just too much.

Still, she said she feels the loss of not being there. The vendors usually placed to the left and right of Chef’s D’Lites have become like family, she said. 

Turrentine-Daniel said the COVID-19 protocols seemed solid. It’s the people who do not care who make it scary, she said.

“I was tempted to go down there yesterday, but then I thought, ‘What am I going for?’” she said. “A deep-fried anything is not worth my life.” 

Besides, she said, she can deep fry almost anything by herself.

Turrentine-Daniel said she did not want to put anyone in her family in jeopardy by participating in the event. She is, however, one of the event’s virtual vendors — meaning patrons are still able to place orders with Chef's D’Lites. 

'A little bit of normalcy'

Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ, based out of Greensboro, set up their truck at the fair food event for what would have been their fourth year at the N.C. State Fair. The owner, Mike Neal, said everyone seemed to be operating safely.

To discourage patrons from eating their food on the fairgrounds, Neal said Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ has been double packaging food items in a closed container and bag.

“You have to be really intentional to take the food out of the bag and out of the packaging,” he said. 

Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ has a brick and mortar shop in Greensboro that has stayed open throughout the pandemic. This sets them apart from other businesses, like Chef’s D’Lites and Ragin’ Cajun, which operate virtually or only at events. 

Neal said the staff at Hickory Tree underwent COVID-19 safety training in Greensboro that proved applicable to the fair food experience. Topics like food packaging and social distancing were covered, along with less obvious topics — like how to work in a hot food truck with a mask on. 

About the fair food event, Neal said it was weird, but good, to see people out and about.

“The sense of normalcy is comforting, but a little different,” he said. “Given what this year has brought us —  maybe it’s not normal, but it’s appropriate for 2020.”

@MarMorava

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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