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Dst In Sarasota Herald-Tribune 8-4-20

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Riding a Sarasota tour bus in the middle of a pandemic

by Laura Finaldi, Sarasota Herald-Tribune — Posted 8-04-20 at 7:00 AM

Have you ever heard the phrase “be a tourist in your own city?” I used to see that on Instagram in the before times and roll my eyes. It’s a big world out there, after all, and I’ve always felt like getting out of one’s comfort zone is essential for personal growth.

But that was before the coronavirus. Not being able to travel like before has forced people to become more intimately acquainted with their surroundings. Now is as good of a time as ever to look for adventures right in your own backyard.

In that spirit, I decided to check out Discover Sarasota Tours, a local company that offers trolley tours of Sarasota through the lens of history, ghosts, psychics, the circus and more.

Tammy Hauser, the company’s CEO, told me last week that she has been running her trolley tours at reduced capacity since reopening in June. She said she has also been offering private tours to customers who don’t want to have to share a trolley with people they don’t know for a higher price.

I wondered what would bring someone to go on a trolley tour in the middle of a pandemic with people they don’t know. It honestly sounds risky. Do you really want to be in a trolley, breathing the same air as complete strangers, even if you are properly spaced out?

And it turns out it was a risk. Hauser called me on Monday as I was finishing this column and informed me that someone on the tour I was on tested positive for COVID-19, even though the person didn’t have any symptoms. As a result, the trolley tours will pause for two weeks.

On Friday, before we knew any of that, Hauser conceded that business was tough, but she has found people who will bite. To break even, the trolley that usually seats 39 has to have at least 10 guests. She also uses a UV light sanitation method to prepare all trolleys for tours.

Hauser said she also had to change her cancellation policy to fit the times. If a tour gets canceled because of low attendance, then everyone who was supposed to go gets a credit that never expires, unless you buy tour insurance, in which case you get a full refund. Those that book through TripAdvisor also get full refunds in the event of a canceled tour. And you’ll get your money back if you show up with a temperature.

There were nine people on my 90-minute city sightseeing tour, including a family of four from Long Island that had just moved to Sarasota and Matthew and Kelsie Lewis, who were spending a week visiting Siesta Key from South Carolina. Other than that, it was me, Hauser and Herald-Tribune photographer Thomas Bender. We were in the hands of bus driver Siggi Urban and tour guide Pat Canavan, a Dublin, Ireland, native who led Duck Tours in Boston for several years.

Hauser took temperatures upon arrival. Everyone was required to wear a mask. Canavan wore his for awhile on the tour before asking participants if it was OK for him to take it off. So much of performing is about using your facial expressions, after all.

We started at Discover Sarasota Tours headquarters on 4th Street before going through Gillespie Park up to the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, the Rosemary District and then up North Tamiami Trail, where we saw the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, New College of Florida, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and, of course, the Venetian-style architectural marvel that is Ca’ d’Zan, John Ringling’s house.

Then we went back south on Tamiami Trail, passing legendary mai tai stop Bahi Hut on the way to sites like the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Sarasota Orchestra and the Blue Pagoda building before Canavan made sure to let everyone know to try the Toasted Mango Cafe, which he said is his favorite place in the city to grab breakfast.

Then it was over the John Ringling Causeway to St. Armands Circle, where Canavan pointed out the Italian statues, specifically the one of Ringling himself. Then it was down to the Bayfront, past “Unconditional Surrender,” when Canavan cued the newcomers and visitors in on our citywide debate surrounding the sculpture.

By that point, as we drove through Burns Court, I was feeling like the kid in the front of the class with my hand raised. Luckily, Canavan was game and played off of my childlike enthusiasm.

From Burns Court, we went up to Main Street, where Canavan pointed out the Gator Club, which has had many lives, including as an alleged brothel and a speakeasy. We went by the Sarasota Opera House and the Florida Studio Theatre. Then it was down Palm Avenue, east on Ringling Boulevard and then east Main Street past the Sarasota County Jail and the courthouse, which Canavan said was designed by Dwight James Baum, the same architect as Ca’ d’Zan.

What else did I learn? I learned that John H. Gillespie was the first mayor of Sarasota and introduced golf to the area. I was also reminded that maybe it would be a good time to buy property in Gillespie Park — like, right now — before the developers snatch it up.

I learned about William Whitaker, who was instrumental in bringing oranges to the Sunshine State. I learned about the origins of our legendary New Year’s Eve Pineapple Drop, which was originally conceived as a way to promote a development called Pineapple Square at Main Street and Lemon Avenue that didn’t completely materialize.

I learned about the Calusa Native American tribe, the original inhabitants of this land that I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about before. And I learned that Ringling Boulevard is named not after John Ringling but after his brother, Charles.

I could go on and on about the things that I learned. I was having so much fun that I honestly forgot about the coronavirus, even though it turns out I had now been exposed to it. Having your temperature taken at the beginning of the tour doesn’t rule out exposure to an asymptomatic carrier.

But if you’re feeling restless at home and aware of the obvious risks that come from being around people, then doing a tour of Sarasota might give you a newfound appreciation for the city.

Read more stories by Laura Finaldi

Those of us who have been spending more time at home — who have been fortunate enough to avoid or survive COVID-19 — are currently finding ourselves having to face what home means to us. I’ve learned that as much as travel is good, it’s equally important to appreciate your home and not always be looking for the next thing, because there could be one right under your nose that you’re too blind to see.

Maybe being a tourist in your own city isn’t such a bad thing.

Laura Finaldi, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lauraefinaldi. Join her Sarasota-Manatee Retail News page on Facebook

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