Can circuses survive the COVID-19 crisis? | Arts | DW | 01.06.2020

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Can circuses survive the COVID-19 crisis?

Circuses are among the cultural enterprises particularly affected by the COVID-19 restrictions. Small, long-established family businesses are struggling to survive — and even global giant Cirque du Soleil is suffering.

From early spring to late summer, small and large volksfests and funfairs usually take place all over Germany, from the Cannstatter Wasen to the Rheinkirmes to the most famous all, Oktoberfest. At the heart of these events are countless traveling showmen, a centuries-old tradition.

This year, the preventive measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in the nationwide cancellation of all these events until August 31, as well as this year's Oktoberfest.

Read moreOktoberfest ends with less beer drunk, but plenty of intoxicated e-scooter rides

Bumper cars, merry-go-rounds and countless other funfair stands have been standing still for months, threatening the existence of many showmen in Germany. According to Albert Ritter, the president of the German Showmen's Association, the situation in the industry is "particularly dramatic" because there has been no income in the entire industry since the Christmas markets season.

people celebrate the opening of the 182nd Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich

A scene from another era: the opening toast at Oktoberfest in 2015

Funfair visitors may not realize that the acquisition of larger rides like Ferris wheels or ghost trains costs millions, which leaves showmen with monthly charges of €15,000 - €35,000 ($17,000 - $39,000).

"We urgently need help from the state if it prohibits us from working," Ritter told DW. The association is calling for a financial rescue package instead of a loan: "If showmen die, the 1,200-year-old tradition of funfairs and volksfests also dies," says Ritter.

Read moreCulture in the time of coronavirus 

Funfair travellers do not understand why restrictions are being lifted in tourism and for permanent amusement parks while volksfests remain canceled. "We showmen are industrious people. We don't want to land in the social safety net. That's why many colleagues have set up to-go food stands [which are currently allowed in Germany] to at least survive," says Ritter, who adds that it doesn't compensate for their losses on the long term.

In the past few weeks, members of the Showmen's Association have been feverishly looking for alternatives to canceled fairs and festivals. They have developed various concepts, such as separate smaller fairgrounds on fenced exhibition grounds. However, their proposals are often rejected by the municipalities.

man in suit with folded arms and circus in background

Albert Ritter, president of the German Showmen's Association

Small family businesses endangered

Circus people share the showmen's fate. Small family businesses, such as the Frankordi Circus in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, are hardest hit.

The circus has been a family affair since 1812, and today Ricardo and Jenni Frank with their children Jason, Naomi and Joel keep the family tradition alive. Even though many of the lockdown's restrictions have been lifted, "unfortunately the situation for us remains unchanged because we are still not allowed to perform. And since our main earnings season from April to July won't be happening, it looks very bad for us this year," Ricardo Frank told DW.

Their small business, with its two caravans and animals including llamas, ducks, geese and rabbits, has been stuck in a farmer's meadow since mid-February. Animal feed and heating oil are becoming scarce, and there's hardly anything left from their savings.

4 member circus family stand in front of a flyer

A real circus family: The Franks from Circus Frankordi

Since their circus usually performs for retirement homes, facilities for the disabled, schools and kindergartens, there would be the possibility to offer shows "at a certain distance" outdoors. "Unfortunately, many facilities do not have this option, or the authorities have banned such performances," says Frank.

The family is looking for alternative performance options, but like many of their colleagues, they are currently dependent on donations. Ricardo Frank hopes municipalities can support them, for example by allowing them to use parking spaces — "especially if things go on this way."

Industry giants also need help

Not only the family businesses, but circus giants are also in need now. The international empire Cirque du Soleil was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Canadian province of Quebec has pledged a loan of $200 million (€180 million) to support its flagship company. 

performers hold up their hands in a circus tent

Beyond the pandemic a success story: Canadian Cirque du Soleil is an international business with more than 4,500 employees

However, such loans are not the solution, says Markus Strobl, circus manager at the Circus Roncalli. One of Europe's best-known circuses, Roncalli has 250 employees. "We had to send our employees on short-time work and our artists are spread across the world at home with their families. There is no planning security, and even for the fall it is not clear whether the performers can fly back to Germany again," says Strobl.

man smiling in pink shirt

Markus Strobl, Roncalli Circus manager

For Strobl, loans are "only a deferred risk," and he believes it is more important to have "the circus recognized as a cultural asset," as is the case in France, Italy or Spain, where circuses are promoted. Strobl advocates support and a reduction in tax burdens, similar to the conditions for theaters.

Circus Roncalli or Oktoberfest are an important part of Germany's cultural landscape. Beyond the fact that they have a long tradition, they are also recognized for their innovative initiatives.

When Roncalli replaced its live animal shows with holograms of animals, the idea grabbed the attention of media worldwide. Now these flagship institutions are striggling to survive. Their disappearance would be a dramatic loss for culture.

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