A sign encouraging social distancing is pictured on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 at the Georgia Square Mall in Athens, Georgia. The Georgia Square Mall, located on Atlanta Highway just outside the outer loop, hosted a carnival over the final weeks of August despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Signs such as these were posted throughout the grounds. (Photo/Nate Hall)

The carnival employees had little else to do but sit and wait as business was slow on Thursday evening in Athens. 

Some workers looked at their phones. Others talked amongst themselves when they weren’t selling funnel cakes, candy apples or Polish sausage. The employees operating the empty balloon dart stations offered a deal: The first dart throw was free, and a $5 payment would guarantee a prize like a white and pink stuffed unicorn, win or lose. 

This was the weeknight scene in the Georgia Square Mall parking lot. Modern Midways, a traveling carnival, visited Athens from Aug. 13 through Aug. 30, in between stops in Tifton and Americus. The Chicago-based company is one of about 12 traveling carnivals currently operating in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic, manager Stan Rozman said. 

Signs were posted throughout the property telling customers to social distance. Attractions like the ‘Dragon Flyer’ and ‘Vertigo’ were further apart than normal. Health inspectors visited twice per week, Rozman said. 

Some visitors wore masks. Most did not. An Athens-Clarke County ordinance requires masks to be worn in public spaces and in businesses. Individuals can take them off when they’re outside and physically separated from others. 

“They appreciate the steps we’re taking,” Rozman said. “People are ready to get out.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidelines for traveling amusement parks and carnivals. Included in the recommendations are strategies for disinfecting shared surfaces such as ride harnesses and safety bars. 

The ACC government issued a permit to Modern Midways dated Aug. 13. The permit included a stipulation that the company must follow COVID-19 protocols, ACC senior planner Rick Cowick said. 

The annual spring carnival at the Georgia Square Mall, hosted by Florida-based Magic Midways, was canceled due to the pandemic. This is the first time Modern Midways has visited Athens. Rozman said he doesn’t know if the company will return.

Matt O’Bannon enjoyed his experience at the Modern Midways’ carnival. He brought his daughters on Saturday afternoon, when the crowd was still light and the lines short. 

“We try to do as much as we can, either if it’s going to the lake or riding the boat,” O’Bannon said. “We haven’t gotten to do any rides or anything in a long time. So when we saw this, we were like, [let’s] try to get here kind of early. That way, we don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of people.”

Modern Midways assembled about 25 rides for the Athens carnival, less than 40% of its maximum. Rozman’s team only uses all of its rides for big events, which have been on hold. More than 90 percent of states have postponed their state fairs due to the pandemic, according to Carnival Warehouse. 

COVID-19 will further shrink the traveling carnival industry, Rozman said. 

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” Rozman said. “The insurance is just insane. It’s six figures every six months. The cost of doing business — you have to watch what’s profitable. It’s still profitable, but it’s not like it was 10 years ago.”

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