| The Herald News
FALL RIVER — It’s been a very bumpy ride for local limousine and courier drivers during the pandemic.
Cancellations and postponements of wedding parties, coupled with a dramatic drop in the number of air travelers paying for rides to and from airports, have set private transportation owners back on their heels.
“We’re bleeding and trying not to hemorrhage,” said Richard Oliveira of Somerset, who for 34 years has owned and operated Princess Limousine — which for the past 12 years has been located at 70 Weybosset St. in Fall River’s Flint neighborhood.
Oliveira, 55, says his sales from mid March, when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency, through mid November dropped at least 60 to 70 percent as compared to the previous year.
Before the coronavirus, Oliveira says he employed 12 part-time drivers. That number has since dropped to five.
His only full-time employee is general manager Brian Thomas.
Oliveira has a fleet of six vehicles, including a stretch limousine that seats 12 passengers; two SUVs with room for either four or six passengers; and four “party buses” that accommodate between 14 and 34 passengers.
He said when he bought his new 34-seat party bus back in January, to replace an older model, he had high hopes that it would be put to good use.
Instead, he says, all four party buses sat idle from March 15 through June 15, as clients postponed parties and celebrations or asked for refunds on deposits.
“Not one job, and still all the overhead,” which Oliveira says includes insurance costs and vehicle loans.
During that three-month drought, when Oliveira said he removed the license plates from his fleet vehicles, he was still responsible for paying his insurance coverage.
He said his insurance carrier allowed him to remove the liability portion of his policy.
“But I still had to pay 70 percent, and that’s tough when you’re not making a dollar,” Oliveira said.
He also notes that insurance rates have skyrocketed in recent years, especially for larger vehicles.
Oliveira said insurance coverage for an older 40-seat party bus he used to own increased from $4,000 in 2018 to $29,000 in 2019.
He says 80 percent of wedding job reservations initially booked in early 2020 for spring and summer have been pushed back to 2021.
Oliveira says he qualified for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which is forgiven when certain payroll and business-expense requirements are satisfied.
He also applied for a low-interest loan through the Small Business Administrations’ Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, but says he has not yet decided whether he might resort to utilizing it if he qualifies.
Micro weddings and backyard parties
Thomas, his general manager, said functions halls and restaurants with event rooms have had to adapt to state health restrictions by switching to “micro wedding” parties on their premises.
He also says some clients during the normally busy spring-through-fall season held smaller-sized parties in backyards.
But the result in both cases has been reduced demand for vehicle rentals and less need for the larger, more lucrative party buses.
Oliveira says during a normal busy season his drivers would average two to three weddings per weekend. More recently, he said, the average has been around one per weekend.
On top of that, Thomas said, the business has lost out on transporting customers to Christmas parties.
Oliveira says all drivers wear gloves and masks and are temperature tested before each job. Each vehicle, he said, is equipped with a HEPA filter, and the party buses have automatic hand sanitizer dispensers.
Thomas said they’ve recently been trying to pick up the slack by booking trips with 10 or less passengers to Gillette Stadium for what’s billed as Magic of Lights — a Christmas holiday-inspired, mile-long drive-through featuring an elaborate and all-encompassing, multi-colored light display.
Oliveira said his drivers recommend but don’t require passengers to wear masks. Roof hatches in vehicles, he said, are propped open at a 45-degree angle to allow air to circulate.
Oliveira said the governor’s office and state health officials have not been entirely clear as to the exact number of passengers his drivers are allowed to transport in each vehicle.
“The issue now,” he said, “is the road to recovery and trying to abide by the rules.”
Oliveira says he expects “a significant rebound” in the limousine industry but not until the summer and fall of 2021 once a vaccine becomes somewhat readily available..
“There will be a lot of pent-up demand, but for the next two to three months business is still going to be down,” he said.
Self-employed driver resorts to Uber
Harvey Trieff is sole proprietor and the only employee of At Your Service, a limousine and courier service he started in 1999 after his dress-making business ceased operations as result of overseas competition.
Trieff, 81, said the transition he made back then shuttling people to doctors’ appointments, Logan Airport in Boston, T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, the Amtrak station in Providence and theater trips to Manhattan was a smooth one.
“I love driving and schmoozing with people,” he said.
But Trieff says the pandemic has all but eliminated demand for his services, which had also included delivery of medical lab specimens to FedEx and law firm filings and depositions.
“It’s killed me,” he said.
Trieff says before the advent of the coronavirus he was making 10 trips a week to the airports and train station in Rhode Island and Boston.
“I’ve done five since March,” he said.
Trieff says older clients, who used to account for most of his business, have been very hesitant to ride with him in his 2016 Toyota Sienna van, which has a passenger seating capacity of seven and is the only vehicle he owns.
“They’re just not travelling with me,” he said.
Trieff says his auto insurance premium runs $500 a month and that the only relief offered by his carrier was to defer his payments by a month.
Trieff, who lives with his wife in a loft-style apartment in a converted mill building, says he’s been driving 10 to 12 hours a week for Uber while collecting social security and unemployment benefits.
But he says that pales to what he was earning before the COVID-19 pandemic as a full-time courier and limo-service driver.
The coronavirus “has killed the travel industry,” he said.
Trieff says before COVID-19 it wasn’t unusual to see at least 50 limousines parked in Logan Airport’s holding area.
When he drove there a week ago for an Uber customer he says he saw a total of two.
“That’s absolutely pathetic,” Trieff said.
He says the limo and courier industry eventually will rebound but not to pre-pandemic levels. In any event, Trieff says he’ll continue driving for a living.
“I’ll develop other revenue streams,” he said. “I’m not just going to sit back and die.”