Businesses in downtown Toronto were buzzing with anticipation Saturday as the city’s three major sports franchises welcome thousands of fans to games for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
After nearly two years of pain that included forced closures and layoffs, restaurants and bars are preparing to sell out after the Toronto Blue Jays baseball season kicks off and as the Maple Leafs and Raptors are preparing for the playoffs.
“I’m so happy, it makes me really emotional,” said Natalia de Carvalho, manager of the Fox and Fiddle bar just steps from the Rogers Centre.
“Things are back to normal. The vibe in the city is so much better. Everyone is happy. People are here. Tourism is back. It’s great for the city.”
She said the bar was so full for Friday’s Jays home opener that there was a security guard to control the crowds lined up outside.
Restrictions hurt businesses near stadiums
The pandemic has been a difficult time for hospitality businesses, especially those near sports venues that have been closed and then had to limit crowd sizes.
COVID-19 restrictions forced the baseball team to play all of 2020 and most of 2021 in Dunedin, Florida and Buffalo, NY. While the team returned to Toronto late last summer, Ontario still had capacity limits in place for most venues, limiting the cavernous Rogers Center to just 15,000 fans.
Fox and Fiddle tried everything to stay afloat, but the takeout that helped restaurants didn’t quite work for the bar. Activity plunged by more than half.
It faced great uncertainty as it was ordered to close without notice. All the beer and purchases were wasted when the cork was pulled open.
“It was brutal,” de Carvalho said. “We would spend all this money to comply with these new regulations to make money and then they would take them away from us.”
A sea of blue game jerseys were on display at Rogers Center as an excited crowd waited to enter the stadium for a rematch with the Texas Rangers. The opener saw the Jays come from behind to win 10-8 in front of a sold-out crowd in Toronto’s first home opener since 2019.
The smell of hot dogs wafted through the crowd as gruff scalpers again shouted “tickets” in an invitation to those who wanted a seat and the bobblehead giveaway.
Craig Olsen and his pals traveled from Edmonton for their first Jays home games after watching the team play last year in Boston, New York and Seattle.
The atmosphere outside the stadium was electric as the music blared amidst a party inside for Friday’s opener, he said, heading towards the Temple of hockey fame before returning for a second game.
“Wow, what a surprise. We said we should have come here a long time ago.”
Like other fans, Olsen is already planning a World Series win, if the pitch can hold its own.
A few blocks away, the Scotiabank Center hosts the final games of the NHL and NBA seasons before the respective teams begin the playoffs.
For die-hard Leafs fans, they’ll be looking to put an end to last year’s playoff loss when they take on the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. The Habs were knocked out of the playoffs this year, after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021.
The Raptors will host the playoffs for the first time since winning the championship in 2019. Jurassic Park is once again assembled outside the arena.
Toronto was the only NBA team to play outside of its market last season, as it was forced to camp in Tampa, Fla., due to border restrictions and health and safety rules in Ontario.
The basketball team missed the playoffs last year and lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The activity of the three professional sports teams is very important to business, Olsen said.
“I think it’s good for the heartbeat of the city,” he said.
Crowded restaurants on Friday during the Jays’ first game
Managers of two restaurants in the shadow of the Rogers Center said Friday’s high activity bodes well for the months ahead.
“We were full inside and had a good rush before the game and after the game, so it was wonderful,” said Rachel Kilian of the St. Louis Bar and Grill.
She expects the business to return to the strong summer it had before the pandemic.
Friday’s first full house in a while was incredible for the Pint after it was forced to lay off all its staff and operate only with managers, said Melissa McLennan.
“We had so much fun. It’s so good to see each other at full capacity and to have the stands at full capacity is just a really, really, really exciting time.”
None of the companies or fans expected a sixth wave of the pandemic to disrupt their high hopes.
Don Juan food truck owner Iham Yilmaz was happy to be back at work on Friday for the first time since the pandemic hit.
While business was good, Yilmaz does not expect a quick recovery.
“Not normal, but better than not working.”