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Canceled festivals deal another blow to New England economy amid COVID-19 pandemic

Pandemic takes toll on seasonal workers
Pandemic takes toll on seasonal workers, small businesses 09:03

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents across the nation in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Maine's largest festival attracts over 150,000 visitors each year from across the country and around the world to the tiny town of Fryeburg.  Until this year, the Fryeburg Fair persisted in good harvests and in bad, through the Spanish flu of 1918, two world wars and the Great Depression. 

"It wasn't easy to tell people we were going to cancel," Roy Andrews, President of the Fryeburg Fair said, noting the decision to call off the annual festivities over health concerns proved "pretty unanimous" among board members. "We certainly would not want to create a hot spot in the small town of Fryeburg. We talked to rescue and first aid. They didn't know how they'd be able to handle it."

FILE: Julie Giles of Limington, Maine, drives her oxen, Big Lion, left, and Little Brite in the 4,100-lb distance pulling competition at the Fryeburg Fair, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007, in Fryeburg, Maine. Robert F. Bukaty / AP

For now, the swine and goat grandstand, decades-old firemen's muster kick-off and eight days of harness racing are on hold until 2021, along with the $1.3 million payroll for 650 seasonal workers and the donations to 25 charitable causes.

Jeanette Gilmore, owner of Smokey's Greater Shows, has delivered everything from Tilt-a-Whirls to cotton candy stands for the Fryeburg Fair over the years. "There's just no way the government can shut my business down, expect me to go back to work next June and survive," Gilmore sighed. The vocal Trump supporter has struggled to apply for a PPP loan as a seasonal employer. "Nothing is simple. Nothing is 'let me help you out.'"

Gilmore's typical summer staff nears 100 each year, but has dwindled to just six this summer. Down at least 20 festivals this season, the business has lost millions in revenue. "It's just devastating. Devastating. I keep saying God has a plan." The owner of the 66-year-old business tried to apply for a permit to set up a gondola Ferris Wheel — complete with a hand sanitizer station — in downtown Portland, but says she was denied by the city clerk's office.

"Maine is vacationland," she insisted. "Well, vacationland is cancelled."

That cancellation comes at a high cost to the state of Maine, according to Dr. Ryan Wallace, director of the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research. Maine, which usually hosts 169 festivals a year, employment numbers in leisure and hospitality have dipped by 50% between February and May 2020, with tens of millions in economic activity lost to this year's scrapped festival season. According to a 2016 study, Fryeburg's annual shindig contributes over $21.5 million alone to the regional GDP.

Pig Scramble
FILE: Josh Hall, 9, of Sweden, Maine, tries to bag his squealing catch during the pig scramble competition for third graders, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, at the Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg. Every kid who caught one could keep it or sell it back to a pig farmer for $25. Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Yet, with just over 3,000 COVID-19 cases and around 100 deaths, the state of Maine has fared far better than distant East Coast neighbors New York and Massachusetts, who have both endured thousands of coronavirus losses.

Wallace called this year's fair circuit "make or break" for Maine's brand of small, family operated businesses in a tourism sector regularly operating within its margins. "The sirens have been flashing for a long time," Wallace continued. "Plenty of craftsmen go to these festivals. Those sales can cover their expenses for the year."

For artists Susan and Richard Johnson of Rockland, Maine, summers typically draw seafood-hungry crowds to their community, the lobster capital of the world. Yet with the retreat of Maine's annual Lobster Fest, the retired teachers are without a place to sell their ceramics and a way to make ends meet.

"Everything's been cancelled. And I mean everything," Richard Johnson attested. "We're struggling right now to figure out how we're going to pay our taxes. There's just no way to replace that income." The artists in business for over 40 years have flirted with online business sales — "they're hot and cold" — and displaying work in a gallery downtown. Nearing 70 and diagnosed with COPD, Richard Johsnon said that for artists like him, this pandemic has "changed our whole way of life." He confessed, "I'm not sure I want to go down to the gallery myself."

And while the pandemic has halted festival business for some, it's transformed the market for others. Tim Marshall, owner of Marshall Tent Rental found himself sanitizing his tents last month after lending them out to hospital testing sites in Augusta, Waterville and York. After losing out on over 200 weddings, fairs and charity fundraisers, the business furloughed all but 10 of its 50 staff members. Even with new hospital business, Marshall says he is collecting just 10% of his typical sales revenue, offering struggling restaurants tents for just a fraction of the cost. 

"It's been absolutely devastating for our family business. We're a 38-year-old company and never been through anything like this," Marshall added.

Couples have called off weddings through September, unwilling to quarantine guests for two weeks, as required by Maine law, prior to their big day.

Even the hospitals are moving on. "Half of the hospitals we've worked with have had us pick up the tents," Marshall says. "They've discontinued testing sites or temporary overflows that we set up. It's all gone. It's done."

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