From his office on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, Dennis Vourderis could see Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, the seaside amusement park known for its throwback ferris wheel that’s spun every summer for the last century.
He's owned the park since 1983 and couldn't wait for this season to celebrate the wheel's centennial. But the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted those plans, along with every facet of the summer scene in Coney Island. For the first time in 100 years, the Wonder Wheel did not spin.
Plans to commemorate the centenary — including a Memorial Day event packed with live performances, giveaways, and a visit from the Broadway cast of Wicked — were put on hold.
"This place should be teeming with children running around, having fun on the rides, screaming, music playing; sounds of all the rides making noise, smell of cotton candy and popcorn in the air and pizza," said Vourderis, speaking to Gothamist from his office that oversees the 21-ride amusement park. "It's just totally surreal right now."
Salvaging the rest of the season (which ends September 26th), remains the only hope in recouping any of lost revenue. Vourderis has since appealed to the state to reopen the park, submitting a health and safety plan in June ahead of what at the time was their "make or break" Fourth of July weekend. It was filed before New York City entered Phase 4, when amusement parks were originally scheduled to reopen with restrictions. But amusement parks were removed from Phase 4 in late June, with no date set on when they might expect to reopen.
Vourderis's coronavirus safety plan includes social distancing adherence and personal protection equipment mandates. But he says his proposal has been met with silence, despite outdoor activities showing a lesser risk of virus transmission.
There's a noticeable hush that haunts Coney Island these days. On Surf Avenue, thrill-seeking crowds usually spotted zooming around the attractions each summer are nowhere to be found. The landmark Cyclone, home to the rickety wooden coasters that rumbled over the double tracks, have temporarily ceased. Stores remain shuttered. "For Rent" signs are ubiquitous.
"It feels like a ghost town on Surf Avenue," said Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance of Coney Island, adding the pandemic has resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue since October 2019, when rides closed for the season. It's also made it the worst revenue season on record, said Silversmith, beating out Superstorm Sandy, which damaged numerous rides and parts of Coney Island's beloved boardwalk abutting the beach.
"If we don't know what next April looks like, and there isn't a vaccine, the state and the city really needs to think about how are they going to support these businesses if they're not going to allow them to open," said Silversmith. "Then they'll be going on over two years of closure, God forbid. I can't even think like that because the area will be truly decimated if that happens."
Foot traffic is also non-existent at the eerily silent Luna Park. Alessandro Zamperla, the owner of the 10-year-old Luna Park, also has an office overlooking the now desolate area.
"This year was supposed to be our best year," said Zamperla. "We have not generated $1 in revenue since October 2019."
The pandemic has halted Zamperla's $20 million expansion of the park, its newly purchased columns, tracks, and conveyor belts for its new coaster left on the ground for months.
The Ford Amphitheater, just up from Luna Park, was forced to remain closed, canceling upwards of 30 planned concerts.
"There's an emptiness about it," said Allen Newman, the general manager for the Ford Amphitheater, who is currently furloughed from his job. "Coney Island was on the rise, it was on a big rise. And I'm afraid that right now it's a bit of a setback for the community, the business community."
Like Vourderis, Zamperla submitted a similar plan to the state and the city Economic Development Corporation, which owns the land, but has been left in the lurch.
"We are in total uncertainty," said Zamperla, who is looking to renegotiate the terms of his lease with NYCEDC while also asking to reopen the park one month early next year. "That's why we need now [for] the city to act and to give us more time, so that we can then go to our lenders, we can go to our creditors, and negotiate the terms with them so we can add some some, again, some oxygen to the breathe."
Even with restaurants reopening for outdoor dining, the foot traffic is barely enough to turn a profit since much of the existing activity comes from visitors heading to Coney Island Beach.
"A lot of the people who are going to the beach are really not the people who are spending at the small businesses here," said Silversmith. "So, all of that, and the amusements still not being permitted to open has really taken the lifeblood out of all the businesses here."
Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not respond to our inquiry into when it will consider reopening Coney Island and other amusement parks.
On Monday, Zamperla and Vourderis sent a joint letter to Cuomo, requesting "guidance and clarity to our industry." In it, they stated, "We cannot afford to wait any longer for guidelines. We have willingly sacrificed our own livelihoods for the betterment of New York, and we ask the State to help us navigate and plan for the future of our small family-owned businesses and employees — and give us the best chance of surviving this so we can continue to contribute positively to the New York economy and our communities."
For now, Vourderis — who still has to pay his yearly real estate tax and rent bills — holds out hope that post-Labor Day and beyond will be filled with better days.
"It's ready to go. So if we get the go-ahead, we're standing here with our tickets in our hands and ready to sell them," he said.