CHICAGO -- It's one of the signature images of summer in Chicago: Architectural tour boats plying the skyscraper canyons of the Chicago River, their guides spitting out facts to packed crowds as the low-slung craft slip beneath river bridges.
The coronavirus pandemic erased such vibrant scenes, turning the docks along the river's main branch into mini-ghost towns and costing tour operators thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Friday, however, a hint of normalcy returns to the river as some tour boat operators reopen for the first time since the pandemic forced them to shut down in mid-March.
The resumption comes as the city opens the downtown Riverwalk Friday, with restrictions aimed at limiting activity and crowds.
"We thought it was important to get back on the water, even as a sign of hope," said Amy Hartnett, director of sales and marketing for Shoreline Sightseeing.
Wendella river cruises, which leave from the Wrigley Building, also restart Friday. The Chicago Architecture Center, whose river tours depart from the downtown Riverwalk, expects to reopen those cruises June 26.
But this is anything but a full-fledged return to normal. Tourists must wear masks on the boats. And in keeping with state requirements during the pandemic, seating arrangements have been rejiggered to enforce social distancing. That hurts the operators' ability to cover costs.
When Shoreline Sightseeing's "Bright Star" boat pulled into its berth near the Michigan Avenue Apple Store on Thursday, there was ample space between the rows of chairs on its upper deck.
A rope separated the seats from a podium for the tour guide. The podium was protected by the kind of plexiglas shield that has become common in supermarket checkout lines.
Shoreline Sightseeing has held its prices at 2019 levels. A 75-minute architecture tour on the Chicago River costs $37 to $41 per adult, Hartnett said.