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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. “It’s good for our mental health, believe me it is.”
The duo behind Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park are already one month into their four-month window to make money for the year. The brothers, hopeful they’ll be permitted to open the gates sometime before summer’s end, have been making adjustments to prepare.
They’ve installed markers six feet apart near lines, added hand sanitizer throughout the park and installed Plexiglass to protect employees. They’ve also come to terms with the likelihood they’d 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 can’t hire more until they know when and how — and if — they can open.
Pleas for Rent Break
With New York’s “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 they’ll 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 Coney’s 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 they’re 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 there’s a summer without customers.
“There are really no resources that are available to us and our business at this time,” said Michael Sarrel, whose family has run Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk for nearly 50 years.
“What we’re 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 we’re treading water.”
The Economic Development Corporation, City Hall and Central Amusement International — which also operates Luna Park — didn’t return requests for comment.
Sarrel said he recently got rejected by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 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.
Some seasonal businesses are still forbidden to reopen. Others, including restaurants, aren’t attracting the crowds needed to be profitable.
“It would’ve 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 Tom’s Coney Island, a popular Boardwalk eatery. “It could’ve 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 don’t think they’re going to let us open.”
Seeking Seasonal Aid
Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY he’s penning a letter to the Small Business Administration calling for a new loan program to be crafted for seasonal businesses across the United States.
“It’s 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 hasn’t heard back from the de Blasio administration this time around.
“The only thing the mayor seems sure about is fireworks on the Fourth of July, when it’s 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 that’s workable, feasible and is supported by strong science and public health experts.”
Treyger acknowledged several logistical challenges. He noted that the city Parks Department hasn’t been training lifeguards, which takes about a month.
The councilmember also said the city hasn’t planned for social distancing enforcement on beaches.
Sarrel, whose family has been operating Ruby’s since 1972, said there’s a significant chance they’ll 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.
“Ruby’s 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 they’re your family.”
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