In pre-pandemic years, few locals paid much heed to the doubledecker buses packed with sightseers from across the globe that careened down 5th Avenue and up the West Side Highway. That changed in 2020. In late summer, when the buses were permitted to operate again, one leading tour bus company said most of the 8-10 riders typically perched on their upper decks were locals eager to see something, anything, just eager to show their ravaged city some love.

They purchased $60 downtown tickets to watch the Empire State Building come into dramatic view on 34th Street; and uptown tickets to pass the Apollo Theater marquee almost at eye level. At 110th, they took in the historic La Hermosa Church and the Harlem Meer reflecting the cool afternoon light. They booked Brooklyn tours to snap photos of Lower Manhattan’s spiky skyline from Furman Street, and for the fleeting, birds-eye view of Chinatown’s Forsyth market from atop the Manhattan Bridge.

When it became clear that there would be no Rockettes or Broadway, they booked seats on holiday buses where actors dressed as Santa Claus. From summer to Thanksgiving, from thirteen feet up, they bore witness to New York’s famously serendipitous side-street moments: umbrellas of exactly the same hue passing in a crosswalk; neighbors grilling in the median; pensive dogs and children framed in passing apartment windows.

Over the holidays, that ridership changed. On New Year’s weekend, customers waiting on line for TopView sightseeing buses at 42nd and 8th were overwhelmingly from elsewhere. They’d driven or flown from Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin and California. Others had journeyed from Peru, Colombia, Germany and Pakistan.

First-time-visitor Ruxandra Vasile had traveled from Romania, nearly 5,000 miles away, for a 12-day trip. “Coming now was very daring, everyone at home said, 'What?' But it’s very cheap in New York. My hotel room in Manhattan would have cost 200 Euros in February and it’s now 100 Euros." She didn’t have to quarantine in New York, she said, but would have to when she returned.

Nearby, Floridian Miguel Miranda said he needed a negative test to travel to New York, and had that paperwork on his phone; he was asked for it when he arrived at the airport, he says. He had contracted COVID earlier in the year — “I lost my sense of smell and taste, and I felt so tired. I really became a hypochondriac," he said, while smoking a cigarette. "Not even COVID could make me stop smoking.”

Joshua Velasquez and his family were visiting from Puerto Rico. “As long as we keep the masks on and stay socially distant, we’re fine," he said. "Things are tighter here than they are at home. Here, there’s no inside dining. At home we go everywhere.”

Janet McCarthy, visiting from Maryland, described an annual trip to New York that not even a pandemic could disrupt. She stood with a group that included friends and family from Peru, who all needed negative COVID-19 tests to travel. “Right now I wear my mask, I maintain social distance, I travel with sanitizer and wipes. I come every year, and I take the sightseeing bus every time.”

At the very end of a line that stretched east along 42nd Street, Jaysun J. stood encased in a Deadpool costume, his eyes his only visible feature. He’d traveled from Boston by train and wasn't worried about his chances of contracting the virus. "It’s about keeping yourself healthy, keeping your immune system up. I was prepared for this for years."

The Big Bus tour bus

When the city shut down in March, so too did the sightseeing buses, an attraction for millions of foreign and domestic tourists annually.

Big Bus Tours, one of the largest operators in New York, runs bus tours in 23 cities including 7 in the United States. Prior to 2020, they provided more than a million rides in the New York market, but general manager Charles Nolen says that market is down as much as 95%. Until restrictions are lifted and things become more normal again, the company can’t bring back any of the nearly 300 employees who were furloughed earlier in the year.

Currently, they are adhering strictly to safety protocols, Nolen says, which means no passengers on the buses’ lower decks and no winter canopies on the upper decks where all socially distanced passengers must ride masked.

TopView Sightseeing is also struggling. Prior to the pandemic, the company’s buses served approximately a million customers a year, employed approximately 200 New Yorkers and supported 200 ticket sellers. TopView’s Jennifer Li says the company is operating at a ‘severely reduced capacity’ while following CDC guidelines. She noted that the company pivoted to aiming campaigns at locals — "In an effort to get through these difficult times, we are changing our offerings to include less touristy and more local-friendly activities."

Still, TopView has seen demand for tours drop about 90%.

The ticket sellers.

For much of the summer and fall, TopView’s ubiquitous red-jacketed ticket sellers seemed to outnumber potential customers on the street. In the holiday weeks, they watched bus ridership briefly swell. Buses carried 30 people instead of 8 to 12. All were sitting outside on the top decks where every other row of seats was roped off and the bus disinfected between trips.

These numbers failed to impress struggling ticket agents. “You see 30 people on the bus and you think that’s a lot?” scoffed one scouting potential fares on 34th Street. “Before this year there were 90 people on every bus. My fear is that once the holiday’s over people will be gone and we won’t be out here.”

In Herald Square, a despairing agent said that until the holiday, buses were carrying six or seven people, all from the city or the tristate area. “I’ve worked for the company for five years,” he said. “I’m out here because I don’t want to stay home but there’s no business. I haven’t sold any tickets at all today.”

But on 46th Street, in the shadow of frozen-in-time theaters still advertising shows that went dark along with the rest of Broadway last March, ticket agent George Anyaah offered this sales pitch, "Customers who know, know that these bus tickets save you a lot of money. It’s a lot cheaper than Uber to get around New York on a sightseeing bus.”

To many, the decision to vacation during a pandemic may be a perplexing one. Others are taking advantage of lower prices. According to data from NYC & Company, the city agency that promotes tourism, 66.6 million tourists visited New York in 2019— 53.1 million domestic and 13.5 international. That tourism generates nearly $7 billion in state and local taxes. In 2020, the number of visitors dropped to 22.9 million, with most of those tourists coming in the pre-pandemic first quarter.

This past summer, seeking to tap the local market, NYC & Company and a newly formed coalition of hospitality, business and arts leaders launched All In NYC, a campaign appealing to New Yorkers that promoted borough-specific attractions. But even an organization created to sell New York City to the world acknowledges this unprecedented challenge. “We have to walk a fine line between marketing the city and helping to keep New Yorkers safe,” says spokesman Chris Heywood. “Tourism is so crucial to the city. It represents 403,000 jobs and workers have been terribly displaced. But we don’t want to turn back.”

Lloyd Ultan, Professor of History at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the Bronx borough historian, says it’s impossible to predict the shape of the city’s COVID-19 recovery, and that rise-from-the-ashes resilience narratives like the ones applied to the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Hurricane Sandy can’t really be applied to the pandemic. He also resists comparing COVID-19 to the influenza pandemic of 1918.

“In 1918, Broadway theaters never shut. The theaters were full—the ethos was that the show must go on and theater was considered essential diversion—and the media was more limited. We didn’t have the information. In 1918 they thought it was a germ that came from spit. People did wear masks, but they didn’t socially distance."

COVID-19's challenges are without precedent. "Nobody can truly tell what it’s going to take. We haven’t lived there yet,” says Ultan. “Sandy was a natural crisis. And the 1970s, with its brush with bankruptcy, the city was still here, you still had the attractions. This has to do with health. People are urged not to gather together. It takes a certain degree of courage or stupidity to come to New York City now.”