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Pier 39 Entices Local, Regional Tourists As Restrictions Lift

  • With COVID cases falling and restrictions easing up, San Francisco leaders are pitching Pier 39 as a local and regional destination

  • The Fisherman's Wharf area hosts tens of millions of tourists in a typical year, but with air travel expected to remain slow, merchants are hoping to recoup lost sales with locals and road-trippers in the coming months

  • As of this week, indoor dining and recreation is permitted at 25% capacity, alongside relaxed restrictions on outdoor activity

  • As of late January, Pier 39 restaurants were making only 12% of their usual sales, while cart vendors and fast food spots were making 101% and 78%, respectively. Indoor attractions were making virtually no sales.

“We’re hanging by a thread” said Dan Zelinsky, owner of the Musée Mécanique, a beloved penny arcade and museum located at Pier 45 in San Francisco. COVID-19 has torn through Fisherman’s Wharf, leaving business owners struggling to survive financially while they deal with the stress of losing employees and uncertainty around how long their business can endure. Now, with the expansion of indoor dining, recreation and other activities, City leaders are pitching the waterfront, normally a mecca for out-of-town tourists, as a destination for cooped-up locals.

“You can ride this carousel, hop a cruise and go visit Alcatraz...great opportunities exist in this city," said Mayor London Breed at Pier 39, reminiscing about exploring the area with friends while a student at nearby Galileo High School.

With San Francisco entering the red tier, San Francisco moved to reopen indoor dining, recreation and other services at 25% capacity, along with more relaxed restrictions on outdoor activities. That’s a ray of hope for merchants along Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, the heart of San Francisco’s tourism sector, who are weathering a steep drop in travel during the pandemic. The drop in revenue has been particularly acute for indoor attractions like Musée Mécanique.

“Pier 39 has an energy: It hums and vibrates, and it’s a great, fun place to experience, but it has to have all the elements,” said Taylor Stafford, CEO of Pier 39. “We’re hoping that this recent reopening will get us to that point.”

Since the pandemic struck last March, merchants in the area have relied on a patchwork of local, state and federal measures—along with grants, crowdfunding and online sales, in some cases—to keep their businesses alive. But many business owners say that those measures haven’t been nearly enough to prevent layoffs or the prospect of permanent closure.

Aquarium of the Bay said that despite receiving two rounds of PPP loans in the last 10 months, the business has lost $10 million since the pandemic began and furloughed or let go 75% of its staff. Likewise, Tom Magowan of Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze said that given a nearly 100% drop in customers in recent months, the business is “in for a world of hurt” even with relaxed restrictions; in neighboring Ghirardelli Square, the owners of Palette Tea House said they’d only been able to keep 20% of staff.

“Fisherman’s Wharf really depends on having families and people on business from all over the world enjoying this amazing city,” added Ivan Nanola, owner of LOLA of North Beach in Ghirardelli Square. “There are just too few visitors here now.”

In normal times, the Fisherman's Wharf area, with its sparkling views, proximity to Alcatraz and access by cable car, is perhaps the City's top tourist destination. A 2018 survey by SF Travel found that of an estimated 25.5 million visitors to San Francisco that year, 64.5% reported spending time at the Wharf.

Data provided by Pier 39 show dramatically changed spending patterns on the waterfront during the pandemic. Cart vendors and fast food sellers have fared relatively well, with sales in the last week of January at 101% and 78%, respectively, compared to the same period in January 2020. Attractions like Musée Mécanique, meanwhile, were largely closed and making almost no sales. Restaurants, confined to takeout and outdoor service that reopened on January 28, made just 12% of their regular sales.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get every day from people outside of the Bay Area asking about indoor dining,” said Kevin Jones, general manager of the Buena Vista Café.

The San Francisco Port Commission has offered rent relief to some waterfront businesses impacted by COVID-19 through rent deferral, repayment programs, rent forgiveness and percentage rent agreements for hard-hit port businesses. The Port estimates that it will forgive up to $13.65 million in rent. Not all of the Port’s tenants are eligible, however. And in the meantime, merchants along the waterfront are hopeful for a pickup in tourism as spring approaches and the economy reopens further.

Stafford expects that by the time summer rolls around, local and regional regional tourism could boost Pier 39 sales activity to between 50% and 60% of where it was before the pandemic.

“I think air travel is probably a little further down the road for us, but I think a lot of people will want to get out and get away with their we’re hoping for a bit of a pickup,” he said.

To boost accessibility to the area—and offer visitors a taste of the City's iconic streetcars—San Francisco plans to resume service on the F line, which serves Fisherman's Wharf, starting in May. Breed said on Tuesday that cable car service will resume sometime this year as well.

Meanwhile, Zelinsky’s plans for the future are clear: “re-open…period.”

Zelinsky said he’s been heartened to hear stories from patrons young and old with fond recollections of Musée Mécanique, and vowed that the arcade and museum will remain in operation for future generations to enjoy. Opened by Ed Zelinsky, Dan's Father, Musée Mécanique features one of the largest privately-owned collections of antique arcade games in the world.

"Nobody in my family has ever thrown in the towel, and I won’t be the first,” he added.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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