CHICAGO — It’s one of the signature images of summer in Chicago: Architectural tour boats plying the skyscraper canyons of the Chicago River, their guides spitting out facts to packed crowds as the low-slung craft slip beneath river bridges.
The coronavirus pandemic erased such vibrant scenes, turning the docks along the river’s main branch into mini-ghost towns and costing tour operators thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Friday, however, a hint of normalcy returns to the river as some tour boat operators reopen for the first time since the pandemic forced them to shut down in mid-March.
The resumption comes as the city opens the downtown Riverwalk Friday, with restrictions aimed at limiting activity and crowds.
“We thought it was important to get back on the water, even as a sign of hope,” said Amy Hartnett, director of sales and marketing for Shoreline Sightseeing.
Wendella river cruises, which leave from the Wrigley Building, also restart Friday. The Chicago Architecture Center, whose river tours depart from the downtown Riverwalk, expects to reopen those cruises June 26.
But this is anything but a full-fledged return to normal. Tourists must wear masks on the boats. And in keeping with state requirements during the pandemic, seating arrangements have been rejiggered to enforce social distancing. That hurts the operators’ ability to cover costs.
When Shoreline Sightseeing’s “Bright Star” boat pulled into its berth near the Michigan Avenue Apple Store on Thursday, there was ample space between the rows of chairs on its upper deck.
A rope separated the seats from a podium for the tour guide. The podium was protected by the kind of plexiglas shield that has become common in supermarket checkout lines.
Shoreline Sightseeing has held its prices at 2019 levels. A 75-minute architecture tour on the Chicago River costs $37 to $41 per adult, Hartnett said.
The restart of the river tours closely follows the resumption of Lake Michigan architectural cruises from Navy Pier. That reopening came Wednesday when the outdoor portion of the pier welcomed visitors for the first time in months.
Daphne Lester, 40, of Memphis, Tenn., who was in Chicago on vacation, was waiting in line Thursday to board Shoreline Sightseeing’s “Marlyn” lake tour boat.
Lester, who was wearing a mask, said she was eager to take in Chicago’s giant-sized skyline. The tallest building in Memphis rises just 430 feet, less than a third the height of Willis Tower.
She cast aside any concerns about picking up the virus while on tour. “As long as you’re taking the necessary precautions, I think everything will be OK,” she said.
Under phase 3 of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan, outdoor attractions like the architectural tour boats can only operate at 25% of capacity, according to Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center.
In phrase 4, the boats can be half full, she said.
The restrictions put the tour operators in a bind because summer is their high season, producing revenue that carries the companies through winter, when they either go on hiatus or run sharply reduced schedules.
“It’s going to be challenging to make a profit big enough for the winter months,” Hartnett said.
The company is operating at about 35% of its normal staff level of more than 300 people, including ticket agents, greeters, crew and captains, she said.
The cancellation of trades shows at McCormick Place also hurts the operators because conventioneers often took the architectural cruises.
To make up for that loss, Shoreline Sightseeing is considering new marketing strategies, like pitching its tours to residents of surrounding Midwestern states like Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.