Toronto sports fans aren’t the only ones cheering the return of the Blue Jays and Raptors, who both played their first games this week since the COVID-19 pandemic put the MLB and NBA seasons on hold.
Sports bar owners say the Jays’ season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday and the Raptors’ scrimmage versus the Houston Rockets the same evening brought customers back to patios that sat empty after being forced to close during the pandemic. They’re optimistic the NHL’s return next weekend in Toronto and Edmonton will help even more.
“It actually was busier than we expected,” said Dave Auger, the general manager of the 817 Sports Bar and Grill on Queen Street West, who showed the Jays game and boxing on Friday.
“We opened at noon and by 2 p.m. we were non-stop and then at 6:30 p.m. all the tables were full until about 11 p.m., when we started getting a few tables opening up.”
It was a welcome sight for the 817, which didn’t offer delivery or takeout during its four-month closure.
Bills were piling up, but no revenue was coming in, said Auger.
“We shut down whatever we could shut down, turned down the heat to 60 degrees and made sure the air conditioning was off, but in the end, you still have hard, fixed costs like rent and insurance, which was killer,” he said.
A survey from Restaurants Canada revealed in early July that the majority of food-service businesses across the country are still losing money and could take at least a year to return to profitability.
To make back some of what he lost, Auger reopened the bar’s patio on Thursday with screens to show games, pizza, slider and pilsner specials to drive in customers and a slew of new physical distancing measures to keep them safe.
San Yoges was also pleased to see customers returning to the Office Pub on John Street to watch the Jays, but said COVID-19 measures mean the crowds aren’t what they once were.
Yoges’ three patios at the location can only hold 50 per cent of the people they would have before the pandemic.
“We are only putting like 40 people maximum on our patios, which is not the same as 400 capacity,” said Yoges.
“We are really waiting for stage three to open up, so we can put an additional 50 people inside.”
The lower capacity barely puts a dent in the money Yoges must come with soon.
He incurred plenty of bills when he wound down his second location on King Street East, which became too hard to continue with during the pandemic, and owes roughly $30,000 to his John Street landlord next month.
Meanwhile, Peter Sergakis, the owner of several Montreal sports bars, said he was looking forward to the NHL resuming.
“Montreal is hockey,” Sergakis said on Saturday. “We want hockey to start again, we’re excited, but you have to understand we only have 50 per cent capacity and without hockey, business is terrible.”
Sergakis is getting about a quarter of the business his establishments attracted pre-pandemic and is worried because hockey games will be played sparingly for a short time.
“It’s not enough for our survival,” Sergakis said. “But it’s better than nothing.”
Sergakis said bars will need government help to get through the coming months to avoid major closures in Montreal.
Adding more customers will bring a bit of zip to the atmosphere, which he described as akin to a funeral parlour.
But it’s a big job keeping tabs on customers, ensuring public health orders are being followed and that tables and bathrooms are frequently cleaned.
Screaming fans are not great from a COVID-19 perspective, but Sergakis said the priority is the health of employees and customers.
“It’s tremendous amount of responsibility,” Sergakis said. “But we’re excited for when hockey comes back for however long it is.”
Next weekend is shaping up to be a big one for Canadian sports fans — and potentially sports bars.
Six Canadian NHL teams open qualifying series in Toronto and Edmonton, the Blue Jays face the Phillies in a weekend series in either Philadelphia or Buffalo, N.Y., the Raptors open seeding round play in the Orlando area, and Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps hope to continue play at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida.
— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press