Strasburg Rail Road

A locomotive at Strasburg Rail Road.

Lancaster County’s tourist industry began to try to salvage what’s left of its peak summer season on Friday, when Gov. Tom Wolf allowed the businesses to partially reopen by loosening the county’s pandemic-fighting restrictions.

After a devastating 3 ½-month shutdown, the upgrade of the county’s status from yellow to green led Strasburg Rail Road, Turkey Hill Experience and Choo Choo Barn, among others, to reopen Friday. Cherry Crest Adventure Farm and Lancaster Science Factory are among those set to reopen today.

The county’s biggest restaurant, Shady Maple Smorgasbord, will reopen Wednesday, July 8.

Kitchen Kettle Village, Amish Experience, Amish Farm & House, Amish Village, Aaron & Jessica’s Buggy Rides, Village Greens Miniature Golf, Strasburg Scooters, Ziplines at Refreshing Mountain, Lititz Bikeworks and Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery are among those that reopened when the county was yellow, according to Discover Lancaster.

“Purely from a business and financial standpoint, we would not have been able to sustain closure for much longer than we did,” said Steve Barrall, vice president of Strasburg Rail Road, which had 458 passengers on Friday.

Edward Harris, who began Monday as president and CEO of Discover Lancaster, a nonprofit that promotes tourism here, said the upgrade from yellow is a significant milestone:

"Entering the green phase means a lot to Lancaster County tourism and the broader economy. With attractions and indoor dining now reopening, we’re ready to safely welcome more visitors back to our community and bring back more workers to the industry." 

To help spread the word of the reopening, Discover Lancaster on Friday posted a 60-second video on social media and included it in an email blast to potential visitors. The video, which highlights mostly outdoor options and shows safety measures being taken by several tourism businesses, can be viewed here.

Tourism is the county's sixth-largest private-sector industry, so its rebound is a key to the county's overall economic wellbeing.

However, three of the county’s biggest attractions – Sight & Sound, Dutch Wonderland and American Music Theatre -- remain dark, as the green protocol forbids more than 250 people to gather, caps seating at 50% of capacity and requires six feet of social distancing.

Together, the three attractions drew more than 1 million visitors last year.

Sight & Sound Theatres, which had the premiere of its new show, “Queen Esther,” in March postponed indefinitely by the pandemic, expects to finalize its reopening plans “in the next few weeks,” a spokeswoman said. It had expected to sell 900,000 tickets this year.

At Dutch Wonderland, a spokesman said, “We still have a good bit of work to do before we’ll be ready to open. While we don't have a date to share at this time, we continue our efforts and intend to open as soon as safely possible.” Its annual attendance is in six figures, though a specific number is not known.

But American Music Theatre sees no way to operate profitably under the current restrictions on seating, said Brandon Martin, director of operations. So it will stay dark until restrictions are loosened, he said.

“Additionally, and beyond our control, is the fact that the artists who would typically grace our stage are not undertaking the risks associated with mounting a national tour, at this time. At this point, we are optimistically holding out hope for Celebrity Concerts in October and for our Christmas Show which is slated to debut in November,” said Martin.

The theater sold 222,000 tickets last year, he said.

Barrall, the Strasburg Rail Road executive, said Friday’s restart of its passenger trains went smoothly.

“It was a great time,” with beautiful weather as three trains rolled across the scenic landscape, Barrall said. Last year, on a Friday in late June, the railroad would have run at least five trains.

Under these unprecedented circumstances, however, Barrall said the railroad “had no idea what to expect. We’re pleased with the numbers, though.”

The pandemic has limited the railroad to operating its small freight line and its mechanical shop. But its passenger trains are its main moneymaker, accounting for 70% of the railroad’s revenue from carrying more than 250,000 passengers in normal years.

“There’s no doubt our numbers, in terms of attendance and revenue, are still well below what we would expect if this year were to be anything close to 2019. But obviously, things are different and we’re adjusting. We’re happy that people are willing to come out and take a train ride,” Barrall said.

Safety protocols, implemented to prevent the spread of the virus, were followed without a hitch, he said.

Train cars were filled to just 50% of capacity to provide social distancing. The railroad also added 30 minutes to the time between trains to give employees the chance to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops. Guests and employees wore masks, unless they had a medical exception or other valid reason, Barrall said.

“It’s always been part of our mission to make sure we’re operating safely,” he said.