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FAIRLEA, W.Va. — More than 13,000 people entered the gates at the State Fair of West Virginia the first day back after last year’s event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve looked forward to this day for two years now. We missed everyone in 2020, so to be back is a great feeling,” CEO Kelly Collins told MetroNews.

Rapper Nelly’s performance on Thursday night drew in crowds that Collins hasn’t seen in years.

“We had a sold out concert with Nelly,” she said. “You could tell people were just happy to be back.”

Fair goers from across the state travel to Greenbrier County every year, but were forced to stay home last year due to the pandemic, which put a damper on family fun for Melissa Hobbs of Fairmont. She was at the fair on Friday with her husband and two kids.

“It was sad because I’ve come here every year since I was six weeks old, so it’s nice to get back to some normalcy,” Hobbs said.

Some of the big events this year include a free livestock show put on by the state Department of Agriculture. There is also a dairy birthing center where children can learn how to milk a cow.

Jamie Maga of Danese is hoping events involving animals can teach her 16 month old daughter Allison where food comes from and the importance of farming in West Virginia.

“We live on a farm. She has 13 goats at home, so eventually I’d love for her to come here and bring some of our animals here,” Maga said.

Collins said across the state, outdoor events like theirs are thriving because people feel safe. This comes as COVID cases continue to rise with the ongoing threat of the Delta variant. Because of that, the Greenbrier County Health Department, in partnership with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, are on site every day offering free COVID vaccines.

The fair is mostly back to normal operations with the exception of some popular events taht had to be removed due to overcrowding, Collins said.

“There’s not any harness racing this year. There’s a sheep sheering contest that we had to cut out. It was those events that always cause a crowd, so we cut some of those out just to be safe,” she said.

The Department of Agriculture has an indoor Country Store on site where fair goers like Elizabeth Butcher and her kids can view different West Virginia memorabilia.

“I’m loving all the historical stuff,” Butcher said. Her daughter is 6 years old and is home schooled this year. “My hope is we get all our educational stuff in and she wants to ride the rides.”

In addition to carnival rides, food stands are back. People were hungry for all the tasty treats and waited in lines for some of the most popular food items like cinnamon rolls, funnel cakes, lemonade and pizza. Some vendors have to limit the number of people in line.

Kids are showing off their talents during a rodeo at the fair. Events include bull riding, rope throwing and barrel racing.

New State Fair merchandise includes t-shirt designs that read “2 year of fun in 2021.” Fairgoers can also buy a new charm bracelet and buy a new charm to add to it each year. This year’s charm has a ferris wheel on it. New ornaments are also for sale.

The West Virginia Tourism Office has a booth set up at the fair to celebrate their 50th anniversary of the country roads edition tour guides.

This is the 96th year for the fair in Fairlea. Gates open at 9 a.m. each day. The fair runs through Aug. 21.

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