May 26, 2020 - Economy & Business

The carnival midway is closed

Illustration of a carnival ticket reading admit none
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Dean family's business is dark for the first time in its 85-year history of operating ferris wheels and carnival midways throughout New England, unsure if it will be able to open at all in 2020.

Why it matters: Fiesta Shows typically employs hundreds of seasonal workers, and its events double as fundraisers for local churches, schools and other nonprofit community groups.

Companies like Fiesta don't grab the headlines of big airline or hotel chains, let alone professional sports, but they're very much victims of the pandemic.

  • "We're at 100% hold," says E.J. Dean, whose grandfather founded the company in 1935. "The challenge we're seeing is the lack of guidance. In Massachusetts, for example, it looks like we're somewhere between Phase 3 and Phase 4 of reopening, but we don't really know when that will be — do we get to keep 20% of our 60 events? More? Less? — there are no numbers to work from."

The company has begun acquiring cleaning supplies and protective equipment for workers and customers, and discussing best practices with other show operators (some of which are being borrowed from theme parks like Disney World).

  • "We're still trying to figure things out. For example, we maybe have three times as many basketballs for those games, or maybe a big tray of hundreds of darts so we can keep cleaning them. And different types of cleaning compounds, depending on what is and isn't a high-touch piece of equipment... a giant ferris wheel socially distances by design, so that at least works in our favor."

Fiesta Shows did get a PPP loan and believes it could probably survive into 2021 without a 2020 season, but it would be daunting. Dean says he's already begun having that dialog with local banks with whom the company has long-standing relationships.

As for employees, they're just waiting by their phones.

  • Except for those who Fiesta hires via H-2B visas, who may be unable to enter the country.
  • "The vast majority of our workers come back year after year. Right now, though, our staff is just the 10 people we keep year-round."
  • Expectations are that major decisions will need to be made by the end of June, given the time it takes to ramp up major events like the Topsfield Fair, which is America's oldest country fair with an 1818 founding date.

The bottom line: The carnival is closed until further notice, with no certainty as to when that notice will come.

Go deeper