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The Rest of the Season Still Uncertain, but Big Rock Amusements Opens its Second Post-Lockdown Midway

The Beast - Big Rock's Newest Attraction, swings high over the midway
Big Rock Amusements took delivery of the new piece from KMG during the summer of 2019. Photo by Chuck Moody.

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After months of quarantine in its winter quarters, Big Rock Amusements finally set up its first post-lockdown midway during late June at a shopping center outside of Atlanta, Georgia.  "The event was better than I expected," said Matt McDonagh of Big Rock Amusements.  The show then moved to its second location, opening July 9 in Maryville, Tennessee. The Maryville event, Summer Carnival held at Foothills Mall, is an annual spring parking lot event that is usually held in March but was rescheduled for the summer.

Opening day was rainy, but that wasn't the only reason why comparing this 10-day shopping mall gig to previous incarnations may be unfair. The weather is a bigger factor – a Tennessee spring is far more comfortable than its summer, and also a heatwave for the Maryville region was forecasted.

But the biggest factor of course is the unknown: will people feel safe enough to venture forth to enjoy a midway. The only thing a carnival company can do is make the midway as safe as possible, adhering to CDC guidelines issued on July 4, “focused primarily on traveling amusement park and carnival midways that include rides, games, interactive exhibits, and concessions stands.”

While its opening date in Atlanta exceeded expectations, the event in Maryville has been down 50% compared to the normal spring edition.  McDonagh attributes the decline in revenue to the hot summer temperatures in Tennessee and the news media's coverage of increased coronavirus cases in states where testing has been ramped up.  




Post-Lockdown Midway

As its first post-lockdown event, the Carnival in Atlanta was a test run for the protocols and procedures for operating with the country in pandemic mode.  According to McDonagh, some of the new procedures include stricter personnel protocols, such as temperature checks and symptom screening of employees before they report for duty and of course wearing masks and gloves. There's social distancing, mask wearing recommendations, signage placed throughout the midway and a rigorous disinfectant routine is implemented on a regular basis. After each ride cycle all the passenger areas of the rides are sanitized.

Many of the rides have been modified to fit within social safe distancing guidelines, such as using every other seat in a ride. “The middle horses on the carousel we left in the trailer,” said McDonagh. “Instead of seating three abreast, they sit two abreast, which helps us to achieve social distancing. We spaced out all our seating, which also helped achieve social distancing.”

Carousel with the middle row of seats removed
The show removed the center row of horses on its three abreast carousel to account for social distancing.

The company has also brought fewer rides on what has become a truncated route, down to 18-20 rides from its usual contingent of 30 rides. Part of this is staffing – the company was only able to get 40 H-2B workers to return for the Maryville carnival opening – but also some rides seemed less conducive to running at what is at best, 50 percent capacity per spin. Rides that had to stay at headquarters were family favorites Wacky Worm and the Sky Wheel, a vintage 1965 Double Ferris Wheel that has been a signature centerpiece of the Big Rock Amusement's presentation. “We scaled back as much as we could,” he said. “We left one food concession at home. We are trying to be as lean and efficient as possible.”

To implement all the COVID-19 protocols, from monitoring to sanitizing, requires 3-4 employees, another additional 2020 expense.
 

Hurry Up & H-2B


In fact, the workforce situation for the company has become precarious. With the Maryville carnival as its second spot, Big Rock cobbled together a route of about eight dates, mainly smaller events to fill out the rest of the 2020. Before all public gatherings shut down in March, the carnival company had played its usual Florida dates. The company lost much of its early season route, but its dates through the fall, which are mainly in North Carolina, have yet to cancel and the final leg of the route, which concludes with the Space Coast State Fair in Melbourne, Florida on October 30, are still planning to be held.  Big Rock traditionally spends much of its summer playing county fairs and festivals in Michigan, however, due to the governors guidelines, those events were scratched from the route.  

In June, as many states reopened public outdoor spaces, such as amusement parks and beaches, and the fairs that had not cancelled expressed a determination to continue, McDonagh was confident enough to rebuild his workforce. At the same time, the Trump administration announced its much anticipated suspension of all foreign worker visa programs, including H-2B workers through the end of the year.

McDonagh decided to roll the dice and rehired about 40 (out of his typical 60) H-2B workers. “The discussion surrounding the Trump announcement was that after June 15 we couldn't get any workers, so we rushed to get our workers back,” he said. “We were able to book the route we do have because we have the workers.”

But the difference between having a booked event and that event actually taking place has never been so vast. “Nobody knows anything,” he said. “We have some shopping malls, but it's not up to them. The governor's office and the local officials are the ones who make the decision. Any of our spots can be cancelled at any time, they just don't know.”

Sudden Cancellation

Giant Wheel

In fact, the date following Big Rock's Summer Carnival in Marysville, TN – the annual Arbor Place Summer Carnival in Douglasville, Georgia – rescinded the carnival company's permit the day Big Rock opened in Tennessee and it was soon announced the 2020 edition was cancelled. The Georgia event was scheduled to open on July 23, the announcement coming less than two weeks before the scheduled opening.   The Douglasville event is normally played by Susan and Tim Magid's S&T Magic Midways, but was being covered by Big Rock for 2020.

Within a month of reopening in May, Georgia has seen a spike of coronavirus cases. “The governor of Georgia issued guidelines when he reopened the state and we follow all those guidelines to the T,” he said. “The problem is that local officials make their own decisions. It's frustrating because you're never sure who has the final authority.”

The frustration only compounds itself when dealing with organizers of events, including communities, fair boards and even the shopping centers that have become the hoped for bread and butter of the 2020 season. “It's all over the board, there's no consistency. Some want us to come and setup, some are not saying anything specifically. A lot of people are nervous and concerned, I understand that, but there's a lot of uncertainty. I have dates booked, but I can't say for sure until I'm there setting up.”

With the Douglassville event now cancelled, unless a fill in is booked, Big Rock Amusement is looking at a six week layover – from July 19 to September 3. What the company will do after the conclusion of the Summer Carnival in Marysville is unclear, and McDonagh is focused on having as successful an opening as possible during this unprecedented season.

 “We will do what we have to do to get to North Carolina by Labor Day,” he said. “But even that could get shut down. I prefer to be on the road, keeping our rides spinning. Revenue wise, it's nothing to write home about, but at least we're open. I feel bad for the whole industry and like everybody else; we're hoping to have a good year in 2021.”
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