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An endless bummer? Coney Island gripped by uncertainty as summer approaches in COVID-19 era

Coney Island is on the brink of ruin if businesses are not allowed to open for the season. School safety officers are now patrolling the boardwalk and city parks, augmenting police officers. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Coney Island businesses are on an economic roller coaster as their future hangs on their ability to open this summer in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

City resources are also being stretched and in flux as leaders try to determine whether the beaches will be open to the public; if they will hire lifeguards for the beach; and how the NYPD will patrol the waterfront recreational areas while maintaining proper social distancing and policing large gathering groups.

The NYPD has already made changes to deployment by postponing summer details that would’ve included an additional 150 police officers with overtime. Police sources say that deployment has been postponed until at least after Memorial Day as much of the economic shut down will be in place until the first week of June.

But the department is not leaving the beaches and boardwalks uncovered, and instead are using an army of School Safety officers who are now patrolling those areas for the first time in their history. Officers were deployed as of Monday to the boardwalk; they were seen patrolling on a quiet Tuesday, with a cool breeze and lukewarm temperatures keeping many visitors away.

Coney Island is on the brink of ruin if businesses are not allowed to open for the season. School safety officers are now patrolling the boardwalk and city parks, augmenting police officers. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Only last week, transit cops went to work clearing homeless from the Stillwell Avenue station, steering many of them to social services and proper shelter.

Cops were few and far between this week though, with decisions still being made on summer deployments based on how long Coney Island establishments will be forced to remain closed. Already, traditional openings of the Cyclone and Luna Park are postponed indefinitely.

The opening of Deno’s Wonder Wheel for its 100th anniversary is being put off, and it is still unclear if the beaches will open in any capacity. Owner Dennis Vouderis is getting the park ready anyway, optimistic that he and other will open for at least a good part of the season.

“New Yorkers always come through bigger, better and stronger, even after Hurricane Sandy,” said Vouderis, who has spruced the Wonder Wheel and adjacent rides and adding hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the amusement park. He’s prepared to limiting the number of guests inside the park at one time and maintaining social distancing.

“We are a short season – 6 months, and now we’re losing April, May and some of June – that’s 50% of the season,” Vouderis said. “I’m trying to stay optimistic. We are fortunate we had a mild winter so a lot of maintenance done, but for the first time in 100 years, the Wonder Wheel doesn’t have cars on it for spring. We are hoping to celebrate, sing ‘Happy Birthday’ sometime this season, but not right now. We are on pause.”

Coney Island is on the brink of ruin if businesses are not allowed to open for the season. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

In addition, the Mermaid Parade has been cancelled, though Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA is proposing a parade later in the summer season. Last year’s merry march attracted 800,000 people, according to police.

Zigun mourned the loss of several businesses already including fairly new Grimaldi’s Pizzeria and Applebee’s on Surf Avenue. He worries about several other new restaurants including Tiraza and Starbucks and whether they will ever open.

“We need to deal with health issues first. People need to be safe and I believe Brooklyn can lead the way and not be stupid like some people in California and Florida opening beaches,” said Zigun. “People are coming anyway in the heat wave, so instead of chaos, we should be prepared instead of letting people drown. I think more enforcement manpower to keep people safe, than let it open with no supervision. I think we can ask people spread blankets little further apart.”

Dick Zigun in top hat, marches proudly in Mermaid Parade. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

The popular Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest also hangs, in the balance with several proposals by George Shea, the organizer and “ring master” of the event, as he tries to find an alternative way to hold the Independence Day hot dog extravaganza that normally attracts thousands.

The contest itself isn’t officially canceled. Shea is looking at ways to hold the July 4 ‘gorgefest’ behind closed doors, possibly without a crowd as Major League Baseball is proposing.

Shea, the eternal optimist, is being hit badly by the pandemic. Many of his projects involve large crowds.

“We can hold the Hot Dog Eat contest with 10 people if we needed,” said Shea, who views the contest as American as apple pie and a proud Fourth of July tradition. 

“No decision has been made on this issue, but we have received numerous calls to hold the contest one way or another, and then, to hold it if done in a way, that does no jeopardize anyone safety or run afoul of restrictions,” Shea added. “What’s happening in Coney Island is just so devastating, but Coney Island if anything is resilient and has personality and soul that nothing can defeat.”

Joey Chestnut again wins the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. George Shea holds up the winner’s arms in victory. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

While businesses remain shuttered, Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, a sponsor of many events, is seeking ways to salvage the remainder of the season with guidance from health officials.

She said it is essential to open beaches otherwise people will swim anyway without lifeguards and enforcement on 90 degree days will be virtually impossible. But also, she fears the damage it will do to the economic vitality of the amusement district.

“The beaches are the lifeblood of Coney island and if they close the parks, playgrounds and god forbid they close boardwalk, and while i can’t speak for Brighton Beach, there is not a lot of open space for people,” Silversmith said.  “I 100% agree we must have safety in mind. This is a park, not just niche for visitors, community does use the space and it’s the lifeblood – it’s how the  community gets fresh air.”

Silversmith realizes that Coney Island will open in some form. But many questions remain.

She is concerned about Ford Amphitheater on West 20th Street, a fairly new venue being forced to close for the entire season. She worries that Luna Park will remain closed and construction projects, including the huge water park ride being constructed on West 17th Street next to MCU Park and the restored carousel, won’t get done.

A new water flume ride was being constructed on West 10th, but that too is in doubt. Other projects are also in mid construction with city infrastructure being completed including repaving Surf Avenue and rebuilding entrances to the boardwalk on three streets.

The landmarked Cyclone roller coaster remains shuttered, its season also in doubt.

Coney Island is on the brink of ruin if businesses are not allowed to open for the season. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

“Dick (Zigun) wants to reschedule the Mermaid Parade, but at this time, I don’t know what will be even for July or August. We just can’t wrap our heads around anything as those days are biggest days for business here,” Silversmith said. “I’m not really sure about July 4, but if Macy’s can have fireworks, hopefully we will have our show in Brooklyn. If they are not allowing people to go to beach, I don’t know how things will go on July 4.”

In the meantime, legislators are looking for ways to help Coney Island including Congressman Hakeem Jeffries who is seeking exceptions for season workers for the Payroll Protection Program – something that doesn’t yet help seasonal workers who are not yet on the job, that the amusement community counts on.

Others are seeking special zero interest loans from SBA, but it is unclear whether Coney Island businesses all qualify.

In other words, leaders ask, does Coney Island have a working parachute for its economy?

Silversmith says at this point, “I have my fingers crossed.”

Coney Island is on the brink of ruin if businesses are not allowed to open for the season. Grimaldi’s and Applebees have closed their doors in Coney Island for good on Surf Avenue. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
A fire swept through buildings on Surf Avenue back in 1988, when many storefronts were vacant and the amusement area suffered from financial malaise. This is the same location where Applebees and Grimaldi’s just closed. (photo by Todd Maisel)

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