Fortune tellers and face masks: How Coney Island is riding out the pandemic

Roller coasters and rocking cars may be temporarily grounded, but the eclectic South Brooklyn neighborhood offers glimmers of hope

The Thunderbolt rollercoaster. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Nothing about Brooklyn’s Coney Island could be described as “normal.” But in 2020, when so much feels uncertain, it’s strangely comforting to know that you can still take the D train to the end of the line and expect to find the unexpected. 

Like so much of New York City, the rocking cars on the Wonder Wheel have been still since mid-March—but on a sunny Sunday in early October, the boardwalk is tentatively teeming with life. Some businesses are closed, either for the season or indefinitely, but it’s still possible to get a hot dog (or 75, like the 2020 Mustard Belt champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut) at Nathan’s Famous Surf Avenue location, open year-round since 1916. Nathan’s survived the 1918 flu pandemic and appears to be weathering the current one just as well. The same goes for fellow Coney Island staples Ruby’s Bar & Grill (opened in 1934) and Paul’s Daughter, currently operated by the original owner’s daughter, Tina. 

The Cyclone and Thunderbolt roller coasters are quiet but the fortune-telling Zoltar still speaks—through an N95 mask. Even the statues above Paul’s Daughter’s blue-striped awning are taking the face covering mandate seriously. The gates to Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park may have never opened for the summer season, but a sign encouraging visitors to stay 6 feet apart offers a message of hope for the future: “Thank you for staying safe during these unprecedented times. We can’t wait to make new memories with you again soon.”

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Only a handful of games are open along the midway and most of the iconic neon signs are dark.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Coney Island USA—home to a museum, Freak Bar, and The Coney Island Circus Sideshow—has suspended all in-person events indefinitely but the not-for-profit arts organization has moved to online programs.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Give Zoltar your treasure ($1) and he has much wisdom to share with you. “Remember it is much better to say little than to say too much and regret it later,” he says.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Located on Surf Avenue, Eldorado Auto Skooter Bumper Cars & Arcade opened in 1973.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The statues above Paul’s Daughter are following the face covering mandate.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Luna Park never opened for the season but a sign on the ticket booth offers a glimmer of hope.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A boardwalk photo op provided by the NYC Parks Department memorializes the summer that never was.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Deno’s Wonder Wheel, built in 1920, has postponed its 100th-birthday celebration until 2021.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Indoor dining (with restrictions) resumed in New York City on September 30, but the boardwalk features several restaurants with outdoor seating or walk-up windows.

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Nathan’s Famous boardwalk location—just around the corner from their flagship on Surf Avenue—is shuttered for the season.

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