COLUMBIA, SC — Starting Wednesday, no one under age 18 will be admitted into the S.C. State Fair after 7 p.m. without a parent age 21 or older.
The youth admission policy change, announced by fair officials Tuesday, is in response to recent violent incidents around the city, fair officials said.
“We don’t want to have anything happen like another Five Points at the fair,” said State Fair manager Gary Goodman, referencing Sunday morning’s shooting of a USC freshman that left her paralyzed. A man who fired at another person during an alleged argument has been charged in that incident.
Anyone 18 and older may now be required to show a valid driver’s license or other photo identification as proof of age — to be admitted after 7 p.m., or to stay in the fair after that time.
The previous youth admission policy required fair-goers age 16 and younger to be accompanied after 5 p.m. by a parent or a legal guardian age 21 or older.
The admission policy change is the latest in a string of security upgrades the fair has instituted in recent years – including tighter screening at the gates and more officers on the grounds.
In 2007, the fair installed metal detectors at the two public entrances, three years after a 14-year-old was shot just outside the fair’s Rosewood Drive entrance. About the same time, on the advice of local law enforcement, the fair began more closely monitoring clothing and colors, especially among youth, that might signal possible gang affiliation. The fair has not had a major security incident approaching the level of that 2007 shooting since the changes were implemented.
Fair officials hope the latest changes will help maintain that record.
“It’s going to cost us money. It’s going to cost us attendance,” said State Fair manager Gary Goodman. “But the No. 1 priority is the safety of the people at the fair.”
The Richland County Sheriff Department said since the start of this year’s fair, deputies have made about 21 arrests for disorderly conduct, trespassing and public drunkenness. Sheriff’s Department officials said the arrests were connected with incidents on opening night last Wednesday and again Saturday and are comparable to past year’s incident numbers.
None of the reported incidents referenced weapons.
Sheriff Leon Lott announced Tuesday that there will be more deputies on the grounds this weekend, and that K9 deputies were added this year to patrol inside the fair and around the parking lot. The number of deputies assigned on any given day often depends on time of day, day of the week or specific events on the fair schedule, he said.
“We work very closely with the Fair Association to make sure the fair stays a family friendly event,” Lott said.
But not all of the added security measures have been greeted favorably by the public, Goodman said.
The fair has received complaints from some people who have been turned away from the gates because they were wearing a particular type of clothing, including camouflage. Goodman confirmed the practice, noting the fair has been following the guidance of local law enforcement officials regarding acceptable clothing since it tightened its entrance policy many years ago.
“Based on what Richland County has told us, this is a gang-related situation,” Goodman said.
He said gate officers have been allowed to use discretion in the past, but added greater measures would be made to avoid any appearances of unfairness.
Enforcement of such security measures puts fair officials in the position of weighing safety against visitor convenience and profits.
Goodman said while the fair would like to attract as many visitors as possible, it can’t make that its top concern.
The 2013 State Fair had received 238,322 visitors as of the end of the day Monday.
“There is no way that we in all good conscience – with the society we are living in and the social issues we are dealing with – could think about holding an event the scope of the fair without making the security of our patrons our first priority,” Goodman said. “We are going to keep our people safe.”
Follow Bertram Rantin during the fair @bertramrantin on Twitter.