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COVID-19 hits midway industry hard as Peterborough County fairs are cancelled

Many midways across the nation may not survive the pandemic without  government support, ultimately impacting the success of rural fairs, says Andrew  Gidaro, director of operations at Astro Amusements. 

Astro Amusements mainly operates in and around the GTA doing street  festivals. The company is also one of the largest independent concession  operators at the annual Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and also produces  some of its own events. 

Gidaro is also the director of the Canadian Association of Amusement  Operations (CAAO). While Gidaro said the group wasn’t formed because of  COVID-19, its membership numbers grew rapidly when the virus began impacting the  country in March.

“Now we’re over 110 members. What started out to be an association that was  going to be specific just to Ontario, we’re now a national organization,” he  said.

The industry is seasonal, Gidaro said. “We start for the most part in May,  and then we end Thanksgiving weekend. But for carnival companies, once our  season is over in October, it’s not like we just put these rides away and go  live some lavish lifestyle. There’s obviously a ton of upkeep and maintenance  that’s required, especially with all the intense safety regulations in the  province and the country,” he said.

A lot of money is spent over the winter months on repairs and to purchase new  rides to ensure the most modern attractions are brought to fairs to keep them  exciting for people, said Gidaro. 

“Had someone given us some kind of warning last year in October when we were  finishing up the season that this was coming our way in March, everyone would  have just held onto their money and waited for the following year, but  unfortunately that wasn’t the case,” he said. 

Most midway companies had already spent a lot of money and time to prepare  for the 2020 season, said Gidaro. 

“And then in March, the season slowly looked like it disappeared in front of  us, and now we’re right back to almost October again. You know, it’s a struggle  for a lot of people,” he said. “With zero per cent income now, and it looks like  we’ll be lucky if we’re out next May, that’s 18 months without a dollar of  revenue.”

For a lot of operators, their annual revenue is used to put food on the  table, Gidaro said. 

“We’re family-based businesses; I’m second generation. And that’s the  storyline of the entire industry. When there’s no money for the business,  there’s no money for us personally,” he said.

Although he believes the government has done a great job with creating  programs for businesses, Gidaro said, the programs aren’t helping their  industry. 

“The wage subsidy is fantastic, but it’s meant for businesses that have lost  30 to 40 per cent of their revenue, or who were shut down for a month or two,  and we don’t have any staff so it’s not helping us at all trying to get back on  our feet,” he said. 

The same goes for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan, Gidaro  said.

“The $40,000, that was nice, and the majority of our members took advantage  of that program, but I mean, after going 18 months with zero income, $40,000  doesn’t help. We have a lot of ongoing expenses,” he said. 

Some of those expenses include storage fees and insurance, he said. 

A lot of people in the industry are driving trucks or driving for Uber Eats  or Amazon just to make ends meet to survive, said Gidaro.

“But if we miss another season next year, it’s a real possibility that  without some kind of help from the government that some businesses are going to  go under,” he said.

Carrie Robertson of Albion Amusements said the company has been part of the  Norwood Fair for about 50 years.

“The fairs and the rides and amusements almost go hand-in-hand,” she  said.

As Robertson has seen in the past, if a fair can’t get a midway, the fair  will continue to diminish, until it can no longer survive.

Gidaro said the CAAO has had lots of meeting with government. 

“Both ministers’ offices and members of Parliament, and it’s gone pretty  well,” he said.

Gidaro said last week’s Throne Speech highlighted a lot of things members of  the CAAO had been asking government for, including the extension of the wage  subsidy program and the expansion of the CEBA loan.

Gidaro said they have more meetings arranged in the coming weeks. 

He said it’s important that people realize that the relationship between  fairs and the his industry is symbiotic: When midways survive and thrive, so do  fairs.

“If they (fairs) get money and there’s no midway provider to provide there,  then it’s all for nothing,” he said. “What would the CNE be without rides and  games?”

Marissa Lentz is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. Her  reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism  Initiative. Reach her via email: mlentz@peterboroughdaily.com

Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner

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