HARRISBURG — Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are rankled by a Cumberland County car show that was able to operate in June despite a state limit on crowd sizes by claiming its event should be treated like a flea market rather than like a fair or festival.
They're wondering why the state’s limit on crowd sizes, which has forced most festivals to cancel, didn't impact that car show and are concerned that letting the show go on penalized those organizations that are trying to follow the state’s guidance.
The state Department of Health originally went to court to try to stop the June Carlisle Car Show from happening. The show was allowed to proceed after the state and the organizers reached a settlement agreement that allowed the event to exceed the state’s limit on outside gatherings of 250 people.
The dispute ended with a confidential agreement allowing Carlisle Events to admit up to 20,000 patrons – 50 percent of the capacity of the fairgrounds – daily, lawmakers said.
"If you can put 20,000 there, most events we have don't have that many. We have to have consistency," said state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County.
In court, the car show organizers argued that they should be treated like a flea market or a mall, which are allowed to operate at 50% capacity instead of abiding by the 250 person limit.
Flea markets have been allowed to operate statewide since all counties entered the green phase of Wolf’s reopening strategy, said Nate Wardle, a Health Department spokesman.
“The department filed that lawsuit to prevent the reported 100,000 from attending what was then-billed as a large multi-faceted event during the height of the pandemic, Warlde said. “The Department of Health is pleased to have worked with Carlisle Events to improve its efforts to protect Spring Carlisle vendors and patrons and the public from COVID-19. As a result of those efforts the Department and Carlisle Events resolved that litigation.”
The Carlisle car show held a Corvette show this weekend, which organizers advertise as “the largest and most fun-filled Corvette event in the world.”
That angers lawmakers who say that if the state is going to allow people to gather at a large car show, there is no discernible reason for the state to have a 250-limit on crowd sizes that has effectively convinced most other festival and community event organizers across Pennsylvania to cancel summer and fall events.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, said allowing a car show to operate by defining it as a flea market “is a stretch.”
He said the state could have treated fairs and festivals more fairly by allowing them to operate under the same rules governing amusement parks, which are open at 50% capacity.
“Outdoor events aren’t nearly as problematic” as indoor gatherings, Longietti said. “Events in Mercer County have been cancelled because people are trying to follow the rules and I share that anger.”
Sainato said that the state’s handling of the car show is similar to the inconsistent implementation of the waivers granted to businesses seeking to be added to the list of life-sustaining businesses allowed to remain open during the statewide business shutdown.
“Everyone needs to be treated evenly,” Sainato said. “It comes down to fairness.”
Sainato said he doesn’t dispute that coronavirus is a danger to public health. However, if the state determines that it’s safe for crowds to gather at one type of event, then it should be safe at other events.
“We need to have uniformity in the rules,” he said. “That’s what’s got people upset.”
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County, said that when the state reached the agreement with the Carlisle car show, the terms should have been released to the public.
“It was hidden,” he said. “You should be transparent” because the state government was involved.
Almost every county fair in the state has either canceled or dramatically scaled down their plans to comply with the state limits on crowd sizes, said Sally Nolt, president of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs.
The Lawrence County Fair and the Great Stoneboro Fair, Mercer County's largest fair were both canceled this year because of the pandemic.
The Cameron County Fair, Somerset County Fair and Union County West End Fair were the only county fairs that didn’t cancel or make changes to comply with the crowd size limits. In addition to being limited to 250-people outside, the state now bars groups of more than 25 people inside.
Nolt said that she thinks that there were other factors involved in the almost universal move to cancel festivals.
“It wasn’t about just obeying the governor’s order, fairs were concerned about public safety. We are in a pandemic,” she said. Those safety concerns extended to the people who work at the fairs, she said. “A lot of us are over 60” and more vulnerable to COVID-19, she said.
In addition, fairs were struggling to get vendors and carnival operators to commit to participant this year, said Harry Ruffner, executive secretary of the fair association.
The moves to cancel most county fairs will have a dramatic financial toll, Nolt and Ruffner said.
Legislation to help county fairs passed the state Senate unanimously in July and is now awaiting action in the state House. Under Senate Bill 1182, fairs that cancel in 2020 due to the pandemic will receive the same reimbursement from the state Department of Agriculture that they got in 2019.
A fiscal analysis of the bill completed by the Senate appropriations committee noted that the state had already budgeted $4 million for the cost of reimbursing the fairs and the legislation won't increase that amount.
On top of all the other concerns, event organizers in many cases were worried about lawsuits if they had COVID-19 outbreaks during their events, Ruffner said.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said that he too thinks that many of the events have been cancelled because organizers have been warned by lawyers about their liability risk.
In addition, he thinks the Wolf Administration has successfully convinced many people that gatherings are too unsafe.
“It’s the fear factor,” he said. “The governor has been consistent in that his answer to everything has been ‘no.’”
Wardle said that despite reaching the agreement with the car show, health officials remain convinced that gatherings should be limited and members of the public should practice social-distancing and wear face masks around others.
"We must continue to focus our approach toward the overall intent of protecting public health. The virus is not stopping and spreads more easily when people are in close contact and the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is why large gatherings are limited statewide," he said.