If you’ve searched out fun on Long Island in the past 70 years, it’s almost certain that you’ve been hosted by the Newton family and their employees. Maybe you’ve eaten their cotton candy and funnel cakes, been whirled on their carousels or ferried on their Ferris wheels. Perhaps you’ve oohed and aahed at their fireworks, maybe won a stuffed animal for a date who became a wife or the child who is your life.
But we did not do those things in 2020, and Mike Newton and his brother, John, and his son, John Jr., and their eight or 10 full-time employees did not really make a living. The nonprofits they partner with did not fill their coffers, and the part-timers who staff the fairs and carnivals and feasts had no work.
Newton Shows is what’s known in the trade as a "40-miler," Mike Newton, 67, says. They haul their 1 million pounds of rides and booths and other equipment around Nassau and Suffolk counties and Queens from their East Northport headquarters, but not much farther. They don’t own a fairground but instead set up at the locations of their partners, like the annual St. Anthony’s Family Feast and Festival run by the parish in East Northport or "The Best Feast in the East" at the Church of St. Rocco in Glen Cove or the Sayville Summerfest.
John and Mike’s dad, Lewis, started the business in 1949 with one Ferris wheel and the need to feed a growing family. COVID could end it. The COVID-19 stimulus packages have helped the company some, but not enough. The upcoming season, normally from April to October, could make or break Newton Shows, which has not operated an event since the October 2019 Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay.
Mike says the company has accessed two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program money, each covering payroll for about eight weeks. The full-timers were laid off after the first round of PPP, and the Newtons have no idea whether they can ask these workers to come back, because they have no idea whether they’re going to be able to hold events.
The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill now being finalized this week will provide $1.25 billion, but not for operators like the Newtons, who own no venue. Mike Newton spent time on the phone with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s staff and spoke to Rep. Tom Suozzi, and both camps were responsive and tried to be helpful. But the bill’s wounding wording did not get changed.
The company needs to work this season.
For that to happen, the state needs to provide clear guidance, soon, on how the Newtons and their partners are allowed to run festivals and fairs and feasts. Newton says he can comply safely with current distance and masking rules. And he says the nonprofits he works with and the part-timers he employs, many of them senior citizens and young people starting out and folks who might not be so well-suited for other jobs, need this as much as he does.
We all need it this year, the sausage and pepper heros, the zeppoles, the rides and games and carny barkers and calliopes, the stuffed animals and stuffed bellies and children sticky from cotton candy, falling asleep in our arms.
The state has a lot on its plate, from preventing the spread of the virus to dispersing the vaccine to running New York’s everyday affairs.
Even so, it shouldn’t forget the carnivals.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.