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Karen Mansfield/Observer-Reporter

Carl Brandtonies, owner of Worldview Travel Agency of Washington, is among the travel agents whose businesses are in limbo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

For local travel agencies, the coronavirus pandemic is the worst crisis they have faced since 9/11.

“It’s not a pretty picture, honey. I’m operating about 1%,” said Natalie Shimshock, vice president of Budget Charters in Adah, Fayette County.

At Davis Travel Agency in Monongahela, owner Sandy Davis is also struggling through the pandemic.

“Right now, people are still afraid to travel,” said Davis, who has operated the travel agency for 31 years. “And even if they do want to travel, they don’t know what they’re going to run into at their destination.”

The travel industry – which supports 1 in 10 jobs, noted Carl Brandtonies, owner of Worldview Travel Agency in Washington – has taken a huge hit due to travel restrictions and canceled trips for business and leisure, and its impact on the economy is significant.

“I’ve been in the travel industry since 1989, and this is totally different from 9/11 and anything else that’s happened,” said Brandtonies. “This is just something you couldn’t fathom ever happening.”

And travel agencies are worried about the future of their businesses.

Shimshock – whose charter motor coach company offers services ranging from one-day casino trips and group tours to sightseeing tours throughout the United States and Canada – has laid off three office employees, and only two of the 28 drivers who were employed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have been called back to work.

The company’s 38 motor coaches have been sitting idle, save for a handful of recent short trips, since March 14.

“The drivers are lucky to get 20 hours in two weeks,” said Shimshock. “Wheeling and Meadows casinos won’t take motor coaches, and no restaurant will take a motor coach with my passengers. Everything is limited because of capacity restrictions.”

Davis closed her office on May 1 and has been working from home since.

“I’ve had zero income coming in because of COVID, and I couldn’t afford to pay expenses at an office,” she said.

Normally, Davis would be busy now helping clients plan Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday trips, along with spring and summer vacations. But travelers are scrapping plans because of the coronavirus.

She estimates her business is down about 95%.

Davis said her clients are opting to stay in the United States – Las Vegas and Florida, in particular – if they travel at all.

Cruise lines, a staple of Davis Travel Agency’s business, have shut down through the fall and winter months. Venues like Walt Disney World are operating on limited hours.

And, said Davis, she’s concerned that another important clientele, business travelers, might not return when things return to normal.

“Now, people are working from home doing teleconferencing instead of flying to meet face-to-face, and they’re finding it’s working. It could have a long-term impact,” said Davis.

Shimshock said her company and the United Motorcoach Association have turned to state and federal government in search of help, but the CARES Act didn’t allocate money to private buses.

“We’re still trying to rally to get into the second stimulus round, if it comes,” she said, noting the American Bus Association estimates as many as 40% of its member businesses could close permanently by the end of the year without federal assistance.

At Worldview Travel, a full-service agency that serves corporate and leisure clients, along with couples planning destination weddings, Brandtonies was forced to lay off three of the company’s four travel agents.

His agency was partly buoyed by funding it received from the CARES Act, but with the pandemic still raging around the world, and no new stimulus package passed, Brandtonies has no idea what the future holds for the travel industry.

“You’re just thankful for what you have right now, and your family and friends, and you hope to maintain that and go day-by-day,” said Brandtonies. “Are there places that have gone out of business? Yes. And yes, there are probably going to be more. But I don’t want to look at that. I don’t know what will happen. We just want to get back to what we do best, which is give people their dreams, and help them put a mark on their bucket list.”

Davis, too, doesn’t have any other option than to weather the storm.

“I’m hoping. We’re just going to wait it out,” said Davis. “Hopefully our clients will come back to us when this is over.”

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