Workers keep Denos Wonder Wheel going during the coronavirus outbreak, May 7, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
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With staff down to six and prospects for the summer uncertain, brothers Steve and Dennis Vourderis still happily stroll through their shuttered amusement park a few times a week to crank up their iconic Wonder Wheel.
For the first spring in a century, the 150-foot Coney Island landmark remains stripped of passenger cabins including its famed swinging cars which were removed as cold weather descended late last year.
But when the giant wheel still spins, it signals brighter hopes.
We have to run the rides every once in a while to keep everything lubricated, Dennis told THE CITY. Its good for our mental health, believe me it is.
Denos Vourderis inspects rides at Coney Islands Denos Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, May 7, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The duo behind Denos Wonder Wheel Park are already one month into their four-month window to make money for the year. The brothers, hopeful theyll be permitted to open the gates sometime before summers end, have been making adjustments to prepare.
Theyve installed markers six feet apart near lines, added hand sanitizer throughout the park and installed Plexiglass to protect employees. Theyve also come to terms with the likelihood theyd have to operate at no more than 50% capacity, or 1,500 visitors at a time.
In a typical season, they would have not a half dozen employees, but 70 or 80. But they cant hire more until they know when and how and if they can open.
With New Yorks PAUSE order still firmly in place and Mayor Bill de Blasio saying he has no plan in motion to open beaches this summer, owners of businesses in the seaside amusement mecca fear theyll be pushed to the brink.
Some Boardwalk businesses are calling for the city to help broker a rent break from Central Amusement International, which leases much of Coneys land from the city Economic Development Corporation and subleases to a half-dozen tenants.
The Mermaid Avenue business corridor already has one of the highest storefront vacancy rates in New York City, despite draws ramging from the sideshows to the Wonder Wheel to the Cyclone.
While business owners said theyre grateful to Central Amusement for helping revitalizing the local economy, some told THE CITY a rent break may be their only path to survival if theres a summer without customers.
The owners of Rubys Bar & Grill on the Coney Island boardwalk were planning to reopen for takeout during the coronavirus outbreak, May 7, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
There are really no resources that are available to us and our business at this time, said Michael Sarrel, whose family has run Rubys Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk for nearly 50 years.
What were trying to do is see if we can get some sort of rent concession from our landlord and that remains the best possible way we can sustain the season, Sarrel said. We need a lifeboat, because right now were treading water.
The Economic Development Corporation, City Hall and Central Amusement International which also operates Luna Park didnt return requests for comment.
Sarrel said he recently got rejected by the U.S. Small Business Administrations Payroll Protection Program.
But even businesses that got PPP loans are hamstrung by the requirement to hire back staff on payroll and use most of the loan by June 30.
People enjoy a warm spring day on the Coney Island Boardwalk during the coronavirus outbreak, May 7, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Some seasonal businesses are still forbidden to reopen. Others, including restaurants, arent attracting the crowds needed to be profitable.
It wouldve definitely gone a lot further, I think, if they let us use that money for everything they wanted us to use it for, but use it over the timeframe we wanted to, said Jim Kokotas, the owner of Toms Coney Island, a popular Boardwalk eatery. It couldve helped us get to the end of the tunnel possibly.
We have to use it up in eight weeks, but we are not going to be able to open in eight weeks, not in New York, he added. I dont think theyre going to let us open.
Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY hes penning a letter to the Small Business Administration calling for a new loan program to be crafted for seasonal businesses across the United States.
Its critical that a future federal business relief program is customized to meet the needs of a seasonal economy, Treyger said.
The business operators who spoke to THE CITY agreed that a controlled opening of the beach could be a lifeline for them, arguing that New Yorkers will likely trespass if forbidden to enter.
Treyger said he works with City Hall every year to determine a safety plan for the Coney Island beach. But he said he hasnt heard back from the de Blasio administration this time around.
Navy veteran DaSolovo Imeen said he spends time every morning on the Coney Island beach to get some fresh air and sun. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The only thing the mayor seems sure about is fireworks on the Fourth of July, when its the least of our concerns on Coney Island when we want to make sure our people are safe and that our small business community can survive, said Treyger. We need a plan thats workable, feasible and is supported by strong science and public health experts.
Treyger acknowledged several logistical challenges. He noted that the city Parks Department hasnt been training lifeguards, which takes about a month.
The councilmember also said the city hasnt planned for social distancing enforcement on beaches.
Workers clean supplies for the Pauls Daughter food stand at Coney Island, May 7, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Sarrel, whose family has been operating Rubys since 1972, said theres a significant chance theyll be running a loss in 2020. But he and his family are determined to stay open and will take out a loan from their bank to stay afloat.
Rubys is part of our family, said Sarrel. So if you have a family member and they were to get sick or ill and there are things you have to do to help them, then you do it to help them because theyre your family.
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