Fans return to local sports bars despite COVID flare-up
Pandemic-related restrictions on indoor gatherings and hours of operation were lifted on bars across New York State at the end of May, and since then staff at local sports pubs say fans have resumed watching games and matches in social settings. Proprietors are hoping they won’t be forced into another shutdown.
“People are starting to come out more, but who knows how long it’s going to last? I have a feeling we’re going to be put in the hole again,” said James Munson, co-owner of The Village Saloon on Eliot Avenue in Middle Village. “You definitely noticed the difference when the restrictions were on. People didn’t want to go out.”
As the NBA and NHL playoffs were pushed later into the summer to accommodate their modified regular season schedules, fans were getting a reprieve from the capacity rules and curfews that made it nearly impossible for fans to gather.
“We packed the place for the Euro Cup, but the NBA Finals wasn’t as big for us this year, I think because of the two smaller market teams,” said Carlo Fortunato, co-owner of Emblem, a sports bar and beer garden with nearly 20 televisions in Williamsburg. “If the Knicks and the Lakers were in it, I think it would have been different,”
The common trend seen at sports bars is that fans have returned to watch big games, such as the NBA playoffs and major international soccer tournaments, but the after-work ritual of stopping to have a beer and watch a few innings of a baseball game appears to be paused due to the increase of people working from home.
“Baseball is not drawing a big crowd,” said Carmine Gangone, owner of Carmine & Sons, a pizzeria and sports bar in Williamsburg. “People are really not packing my bar unless it’s a big game. I’m hoping football season brings them in.”
Despite a disinterest in the national pastime, bar owners say they have also tried to diversify or tweak little elements of their establishments. Emblem is hosting multiple comedy nights in order to boost traffic on weeknights. Carmine & Sons is featuring a weekly jazz trio on the sidewalk outside their restaurant’s entrance.
The Village Saloon, under new management since May 5, focused on improving their menu when they reopened in the space formerly occupied by Mooney’s Public House. Still, several sports bar owners say the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions coincided with the time of year when many people are away on vacation.
“The summertime is a tough time to own a bar in Middle Village,” Munson said. “A lot of people go away on vacation or for the weekend, and probably more so this year.”
Sports bars with a history of showing a particular sport or team, such as New York Islanders hockey or the Ultimate Fighting Championship, saw crowds return as soon as they could.
“My crowd for MMA is back strong, but during the entire pandemic people called us to ask if we were going to show the UFC fight that weekend,” Fortunato said. “I had to tell them I wasn’t because I had to close by 11 p.m. and pay $1,000 for the fight when I was only allowed half-capacity. It wasn’t worth it for me.”
While the size of the crowds returning to sports bars has been promising, what’s concerning ownership and staff is what happens if the COVID-19 infection rate increases to the point that restrictions on bars and restaurants are reinstated.
Rosann McSorley, whose family owns Katch Astoria, a gastropub and beer garden with 64 televisions and 50 beer taps, is worried she and her staff may be required to ask patrons to wear masks. Katch drew strong crowds for the Islanders run to the NHL semifinals, but has still not returned to its pre-pandemic foot traffic or closing times.
“The mask coming back will be an issue for the bars that do not have outdoor capacity, because people will be concerned,” McSorley said. “I think our business is going to drop for sure. If we are asked to check that people have been vaccinated, that will be another issue.”