PITTSBURGH – Restaurants and baseball parks aren’t the only ones returning to full capacity this summer. After a year of fighting, hardship, and tough choices caused by the pandemic, tour buses greet visitors and others who wish to see Pittsburgh from a seat on the upper deck.
Since opening in April, The Pittsburgh Tour Co. has seen a steady increase in passengers wanting to ride their red double-decker buses through the city streets. Co-owner Vince LaMonica said the open seats upstairs made people safer.
“People feel better because they’re not in the same room,” he says.
Among the passengers who breathed a little easier on a recent outing were former Pittsburgh native Cathy McKinley and her two grandchildren. McKinley, who now lives in Suttons Bay, Michigan, said she liked that they could hop on and off at any of the 21 stops.
“It’s like the perfect situation for anyone visiting Pittsburgh,” she said. “It makes more sense to use this than using our car and driving around trying to park.”
The Pittsburgh Tours season usually starts in mid-April and ends in October. Last year, LaMonica said that the pandemic forced him and his wife and co-owner Manon to postpone the start to July 4th. They thought the holiday would attract people who wanted to tour the city, but it didn’t work out that way.
Over the next three weeks, even on an open-air bus, they had very few passengers willing to risk COVID-19, he said. Strict adherence to distance rules, restricted capacity and other health regulations didn’t help.
“The bus was empty. There were no travelers, ”he said.
Their season was over in early August. They thought it would cost them less money to close than continue to tour on almost empty buses.
Although LaMonica said it made financial sense to retire from the career, it was still a tough decision. They still had to pay insurance and other fixed costs, and their employees suffered as well. Many of the drivers and other employees had to register as unemployed when the company decided to close early, he said.
Although restaurants, bars, and other hospitality businesses received government grants and other interruptions to help them stay afloat during the pandemic, “there was no help” for tourism businesses like his, LaMonica said. He estimates that 95% of his customers are foreign visitors.
He said things are starting to improve as vaccinated Americans start traveling again, noting that his staff all had COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I have high hopes for this year,” said LaMonica. “Maybe I’m just hopeful. That’s all we can do. “
He expects this summer to be filled with people traveling to places they planned before the coronavirus shutdown. Some families who normally only take one summer vacation will take two this year, he predicted. He sees an increase in business with passengers who fall into different groups.
“The first travelers we saw were mostly seniors.”
He said many of them had just been vaccinated and wanted to travel again. The next group of passengers were families with children, followed by students who finished class and were ready to travel, LaMonica said.
Donna and Lee Ridenour, of Tyler, Texas, said they were uncomfortable getting on a plane when COVID-19 cases were high. Now that the couple are vaccinated, they are ready to visit cities they have never seen before. On Wednesday they took a tour of the city center.
“We were ready to come, and it was fun to think about that we were going to hit a new city like Pittsburgh,” she said.
The bus tours provide insightful insight into the history, culture, and architecture of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Tour Co. guides spend the 2½-hour drive pointing out features that can only be seen and experienced in Pittsburgh, including the Fred Rogers statue on the North Shore and the old Heinz factory on the North Side and the original Primati Bros. sandwich shop in the Strip District.
McKinley, who moved from Pittsburgh 20 years ago, is glad she returned this year. While the city became a beautiful place back then, it is “so much more mature,” she said.
“It’s a much better city. I would like to move again. One day I will. “
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