Coney Island’s iconic Wonder Wheel turned 100 years young this year, and attraction owner Dennis Vourderis had a big celebration planned for the Coney Island landmark.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, leading to all kinds of shutdowns of social activities. Three days removed from the Fourth of July, and still not a soul has taken a spin this summer on the Wonder Wheel — or, for that matter, any of the other attractions at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.
The giant ferris wheel’s caged cars are open air, without any windows, and spaced 15 feet apart from one another. Vourderis maintains that staff members are ready to sanitize each car after every ride.
Yet the amusement park, and others in New York City, cannot reopen at the present time. New York City is in phase 3 of reopening, and amusement parks — which generally bring out large crowds in open air — are a part of phase 4, should conditions permit their reopening.
In the meantime, Vourderis — who with his brother Steve and family has owned the ferris wheel since 1983 — keep hoping to hear good news from a cautious governor and mayor who have kept to a strict reopening in phases to not make the same mistakes as other states who are now getting his hard by coronavirus outbreaks.
Vourderis worries about a real estate tax bill sitting on his desk, along with a rent bill from the Economic Development Corp. He also has a mortgage on an adjoining property they bought to expand their amusement park.
The bills are piling up, but so far, they have only been able to open two concession stands to the public and no rides – business is just 15% of that during a normal Coney Island summer.
“Give me a reason why they are keeping us closed. Why punish us for what Florida, Arizona and Texas have done?” Vourderis groused. “We are in the safety business, and we will make sure all our staff and visitors are safe. Look at the Boardwalk and the beach, very few people are social distancing and wearing masks – nobody is following the guidelines.”
Vourderis said his group, the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association, has represented them in Albany since the beginning. He said all state parks are involved and wrote up a plan to reopen safely.
Though the state has been presented with the plan, Vourderis and his fellow amusement park owners are worried, as Rye Playland has canceled their season and Governor Andrew Cuomo has cancelled the State Fair.
“I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about what the hell, how will I pay real estate taxes that were due July 1. Have to pay them. I have to pay a mortgage and real estate taxes, those bills must be paid. The Department of Finance wants me to pay the EDC, at least they have put that off,” Vourderis said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on the amusement area at his press conference Monday, promising to examine whether the outdoor amusements in Coney Island can resume safely.
“The state rules have been very smart as we open in phases to avoid things that have too much closeness,” the mayor said. “Amusement parks are in that category – the Wonder Wheel may be different and that’s a fair point. I love Coney Island and I want people there and we want to continue to keep Coney Island alive. We will pursue this with the state — maybe we will find an appropriate balance.”
Vourderis insists his park will hold a high standard of safety when it reopens. Ticket takers will stay behind plexiglass. Each ride will receive a thorough wipe down between customers.
“We will insist on social distance, use hand sanitizer, clean our rides and we will control entry to the park by selling tickets before people enter and control the number of people,” Vourderis said. “We are safer than being on the beach and boardwalk.”
It’s not just about business, according to Vourderis. A bit of summer normalcy, he believes, will be good for the city’s state of mind.
“Don’t you think the mental health of kids cooped up is essential? We relieve some stress with people dealing with the COVID situation,” he said. “Don’t you think the mental health of New Yorkers is essential – going out for a ride, fresh air, sunshine, essential for mental health? We do that here.”