COVID-19 gathering restrictions have halted spring, summer and fall fairs and exhibitions in many Canadian communities. That hiatus is threatening the business of midway operators who need the fair season income to sustain them all year round.
Patrick Jamieson owns the World’s Finest Shows midway of Simcoe, which usually operates rides and games at about 50 fairs and events from May to the Thanksgiving weekend every year. Like other midway companies, a lot of money they make goes back into maintaining and servicing their equipment every winter.
“There is zero income right now for a minimum of 18 months,” Jamieson said. “We don’t even know if we’re going to get on the road next year.”
The pandemic caused social and economic shutdowns across Canada, starting in March. That couldn’t have come at a worse time for midway operators like Jamieson, since he had already paid to service, insure and safety his equipment and vehicles in preparation for this season.
Jamieson, 43, hasn’t had a summer off since his dad let him start travelling with their family-owned midway when he was 16.
“The biggest thing we missed, being a family business, was seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said the third-generation operator. “We didn’t care if it rained all week, we were just happy to bring smiles to kids and families across Ontario and Canada, now we haven’t been able to do that.”
The World’s Finest Shows employs about 175 people and some might have to be laid off due to the pandemic’s impacts, Jamieson said.
Andrew Gidaro, of the Canadian Association of Amusement Operators and owner of the Astro Amusements midway, said they knew COVID-19 would be a big blow to the industry.
“Most of our membership would love to be out on the road and operating at fairs,” he said. “We like to work hard, we enjoy this business, but (COVID-19) is keeping us off the road.”
Gidaro said it was positive to see the feds, during their recent speech from the throne, wanting to extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) until summer 2021. He said CAAO’s 110 members will continue to lobby the government to continue various other pandemic support programs.
“We’re continuing, pushing on governments to make sure that that mechanism is going to be something to benefit us and help our members get back to some level of normalcy quickly,” he said.
He noted that when midway companies are doing their winter maintenance, they pump a lot of money in to local economies. He said it’s normal for one company to need to spend up to $800,000 in the offseason, with a lot of that going to local paint shops or machine and equipment stores.
“Most of us spent that money over the winter waiting for the season to come and COVID-19 couldn’t have hit at a worst time,” Gidaro said. “Had we known maybe in the fall when we were coming off the road, we might’ve held on to that money.”
Gidaro, a second-generation midway operator, said he only exists because of fairs after his mom and dad met while working together at the Canadian National Exhibition. He said midways are usually family businesses spanning several generations.
“Going out of business in our industry, it’s not just simply the business is going under, this is a loss of income for families and putting food on the table for people,” Gidaro said.
He said fairs across the country, including some as old as Confederation, may not survive since their relationship with midways are “symbiotic.”
“If we thrive, they thrive.”