Pittsburgh shivers through extreme freeze; CCAC closes South campus

Lions and tigers and skiers might be the only ones enjoying this week's arctic temperatures, but that doesn't mean employees aren't expected to punch the clock, just like every other, warmer day.

Despite mass cancellations and delays, most employees braved the cold -- minus 8 on Tuesday, to be exact -- to keep the Pittsburgh region going.

The city of Pittsburgh backed up garbage collection by one day because of the unusual cold. Allegheny County -- which notably doesn't have to collect garbage -- made no concessions to the weather.

"We don't close and nobody gets off because of the cold," county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's "perspective is that we serve the residents and that many of the services we provide really come into play in situations like this. People can use a personal day for their own health or well-being or because their kids are home," she said.

The county parks try to keep recreational facilities open, she noted. The Boyce Park slopes -- which sometimes sell out -- see patronage plunge with the mercury. When the slopes opened, the temperature was nine below zero, she noted, and seven people were in line.

A gentler approach comes, unsurprisingly, from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, which remained closed Tuesday but will reopen today.

"They didn't want people standing out in dangerously cold weather waiting for buses or having to take long walks for their buses," spokeswoman Ann Rodgers said.

"The bishop was very concerned about people's safety and well-being."

U.S. District Court also called off all proceedings Tuesday, in part because of concern for employees and jurors who use public transit.

Meanwhile, the folks who work in those tiny, exposed (albeit heated) booths guarding parking lots are reporting for work as usual.

"They have to report to work," said Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking. "That's just part of the job, and they know it. We try and make sure that the booths are heated, and we try to provide them with the proper apparel to keep them warm.

"That doesn't mean there aren't call-offs," he added.

The other side of the coin is that there are fewer people to serve. "They either take the bus or stay home," Mr. Stabile said. "Just look around. It's not nearly the same traffic. ... As soon as you have school closings, you might have a few more parents that can't go to work because they have to keep an eye on their children."

That makes for a fiscal double-whammy. "Our expenses go up, because of salting and plowing, and our revenues go down.

"I just know that this is not going to be a record month."

Nothing, of course, can stop the U.S. mail.

"I have never seen the mail called off in my career," said Tad Kelley, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. "There are times when we simply cannot get to areas. ... But we make an attempt."

On mornings like these, every employee gets a lecture on safety: Wear water-resistant layers, take occasional breaks at businesses or in your car, and tell a supervisor if you're having problems. There haven't been an unusual number of call-offs in the mail carrier ranks, Mr. Kelley said. "We have a dedicated workforce. They're used to these conditions."

What exactly are "these conditions"?

That meant minus 8 degree temperatures on Tuesday, warming up to a whopping 7 degrees around 4 p.m., according to Accuweather. Overnight, a minus 13 windchill was expected. That will give way to a 13-degree day. Thursday should top out around 29.

Many area schools posted delays for this morning. Visit the KDKA-TV website for a complete list.

While the weather outside was frightful Tuesday, families and kids home from school found delightful ways to keep busy and warm -- though that meant no "snow day" for workers.

But on days like these, who wouldn't want to work at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens? In recognition of the near-constant 55- to 75-degree temperature of the glass palace, nobody gets to stay home just because it's frigid.

To be clear, even Phipps isn't entirely immune from the tentacles of cold that seem to creep through every crack. On rare occasions, a greenhouse's temperature will dip below 50 degrees.

The families of cooped-up kids don't seem to mind.

"We have been pretty busy," said Liz Fetchin, spokeswoman for the conservatory, although there hasn't been a dramatic spike in attendance. "They seem to be happy to be in a warm, tropical-type space."

The Carnegie Museums haven't closed due to the weather, either, and as a result, everybody has had to report to work, said Betsy Momich, spokeswoman for the museum system.

Attendance "can be positively affected by school closings, because if people can get out, they'll take advantage of the museums," she said.

Of course, there's a tipping point after which the weather can slow the turnstiles to a crawl. "It depends on just how fierce the conditions seem, and if there's snow on the roads and [Tuesday] there wasn't."

"I don't think many of the cultural organizations have closed," she added.

Unless you count the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. It closed Tuesday and today. "The weather's just too cold," said spokeswoman Tracy Gray.

Experience suggests that if the zoo had opened, it would have had a few customers. "We do see people almost all of the time. The weather doesn't bother them," Ms. Gray said. A few weeks ago, "we actually had someone here visiting from Alaska who said, 'This is nothing.' "

Even when the facility closes, everybody works. "We still care for our animals," she said. That process changes a bit, since the elephants, giraffes and rhinos have to come inside.

"Believe it or not, the lions come out," Ms. Gray said. "They have a heated rock." The tigers don't need that amenity. "They're from Siberia," noted Ms. Gray. No word on what they think of the lions' cushy rock.

Skiers and snowboarders, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the cold temperatures and powder snow at Seven Springs in Somerset County. In just eight days, 2 feet of natural snow has fallen, spokeswoman Anna Weltz said, adding "it's the stuff dreams are made of."

Workers are looking out for each other, keeping a close eye on signs of hypothermia and frostbite. No cases of either have been reported among employees, Ms. Weltz said.

Patrons "love the snow" and layer their clothes, stay hydrated and take breaks, she said. Though she wouldn't say whether the cold had caused a surge in attendance on the slopes, she said there are "a lot of smiling faces" out there.

"Humans weren't meant to hibernate," she said.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1868 and on Twitter @pgtraffic. Bill Schackner contributed. First Published January 28, 2014 7:15 AM

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