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Boston historic sites, starved for tourists, struggle to make do

Education Manager T.J. Todd spoke to a tour group of two last week at Old North Church, which reopened July 16.
Education Manager T.J. Todd spoke to a tour group of two last week at Old North Church, which reopened July 16.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Boston’s historic sites, which usually draw millions of tourists each year, are struggling to adapt to the pandemic — shuttering or only partially opening their doors, slashing programs, and laying off staff in a summer like no other.

Millions of dollars in critical operating revenue has been lost, and evolving plans to bring small numbers of visitors back to attractions like the Old State House and Old South Meeting House are vulnerable to change if the virus spikes again.

Even sites that have partially reopened, such as Old North Church, are weighing whether understandable limits on crowd size will allow them to operate much longer.

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“It’s been devastating,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of the Old North Foundation, which is responsible for programming and preservation at the historic church, where two signal lanterns dispatched Paul Revere on his famous ride in April 1775.

“Based on the numbers we’ve seen, it’s uncertain whether we will be able to continue in this way,” Stewart said. “There is not enough revenue to sustain the operations and the staffing that’s required.”

Old North reopened July 16, allowing only 25 visitors at a time into the North End church for a short, socially distanced presentation on its history. Tourists are not allowed to wander the aisles, the popular crypt is off limits, and the gift shop is closed.

Stewart said the foundation has laid off all 25 members of its part-time staff and its board is scheduled to meet Monday evening to consider whether to remain open. The foundation derives 95 percent of its revenue from on-site interaction such as ticket sales, school outings, tour groups, and purchases in the gift shop, Stewart said.

“We are trying to be thoughtful about the process and uncover and turn over all of the stones we can,” Stewart said. “Another thing that’s troublesome is that almost all of our visitors are coming from out of state and from high-risk areas.”

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The church, which is open to visitors Thursdays through Sundays, has been attracting only about 50 people a day, compared with up to 750 a day last July.

The struggle also is being felt at the Old State House and Old South Meeting House, two shuttered landmarks that are operated jointly by a recently created organization called Revolutionary Spaces.

Nathaniel Sheidley, the group’s president, said the pandemic is expected to cost the organization about $2.5 million, or half of its budget. As a result, about half of the staff has been laid off, from the executive level to part-time entry positions.

“Being closed for this long of a period of time, and looking at a tourist market that is not going to rebound until next summer, is a fundamental threat to our core business model. Just surviving is a struggle,” Sheidley said. “There’s no question that we’re going to come out of this crisis in a weaker position than we went in.”

Boston’s historical attractions rank among the top three reasons that tourists come to the city, said David O’Donnell, director of strategic communications for the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

That business has cratered this summer, he said.

Logan International Airport counted only 735,000 arriving and departing passengers from April through June, the kickoff of the city’s tourist season, O’Donnell said. In that period last year, the airport handled 11.5 million people.

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Other tourist and visitor numbers are just as grim. Hotel occupancy might not exceed 30 percent this year and could reach only 50 percent for 2021, O’Donnell said. Last year, hotel occupancy was 82.5 percent.

Fewer than half of the 21 million visitors who arrived here last year are expected in 2020, he said. And the Massachusetts Restaurant Association estimated the industry lost close to $5 billion from January through mid-May.

“So many events and festivals that have a huge economic impact just haven’t been able to happen this year,” O’Donnell said, including the Marathon, Boston Calling, Boston Pride, a canceled appearance by Mayflower II in Boston Harbor, hockey and basketball playoffs at TD Garden, Red Sox home games, and Fenway Park concerts.

“The impact has been absolutely devastating,” he said.

Suzanne Taylor, executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation, estimated that the 16-site trail from Boston Common to Bunker Hill is attracting only about 10 to 15 percent of its normal traffic this summer.

The dramatic loss of visitors at historical sites, many of which are run by nonprofit groups that do not have large endowments, has jump-started or accelerated a move toward more online programming.

At the Paul Revere House, where about eight people at a time are allowed on each of two floors, online offerings such as Revere House Radio and its Revere Express blog are helping meet the organization’s educational mission.

“It’s exciting to see this new potential, the long-term benefit of having created some virtual programming,” said Nina Zannieri, the house’s executive director. “This is an opportunity that won’t go away.”

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It’s an opportunity that’s taken on more importance at a time when the Paul Revere House is seeing a 90 percent drop in visitors to its North End campus. Compared with 1,800 visits a day last summer, the house is now counting about 180.

“We were in a pretty strong position going into this, but we sure can’t weather a lot of it,” Zannieri said. “There’s a cascading effect, and I am concerned about next year.”

The National Parks of Boston — a partnership of Boston National Historical Park, the Boston African American National Historic Site, and the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park — has increased online content since the parks’ buildings were closed to the public in mid-March.

Virtual content includes tours and a live 360-degree camera view of the city of Boston from the Bunker Hill Monument, according to the National Parks of Boston.

The partnership, which normally engages with thousands of young people and hires dozens of them every spring and summer, has moved youth programs online, including outreach to eight YMCA branches in the city.

In addition, the Museum of African American History is scheduled to open this week; the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center and USS Cassin Young on Aug. 7, in a joint reopening with the USS Constitution and the USS Constitution Museum; and the Bunker Hill Museum sometime in early August, according to the National Parks of Boston.

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All plans, however, are subject to the unpredictable ebb and flow of COVID-19. For Sheidley, of Revolutionary Spaces, the health crisis has upended his planning even as it has presented a chance for creativity.

“I’m disappointed for our public because I think we had a really important role to play this year in helping people think about how our founding history relates to the challenges we have now,” Sheidley said.

“This has deepened my resolve to ensure we come through this.”






Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.