TORONTO — In another year at another time, this would be a busy weekend for Joseph Hicks.
With the Toronto Blue Jays in Boston to face the Red Sox and the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics squaring off in the NBA playoffs, the manager of Game On! — a sports bar at Fenway Park — would usually expect to see plenty of Canadians in his establishment.
But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that will not be the case this weekend.
“Yes we would (entertain many Canadians),” Hicks said in a telephone interview. “And we’re not going to see any this year unless they’re in the area.
“When you don’t have 38,000 people coming to one area, it’s a significant impact. It’s tough. Obviously we’re not having a lot of away fans right now but the area does get busier (when the Red Sox are at home) … and we have a lot of TVs so it’s still a good game watch, per se.”
While the NBA doesn’t normally play in August, it is possible a Raptors-Celtics playoff series could come on an April and May weekend when the Blue Jays and Red Sox were scheduled at Fenway in other years. With Boston within driving distance for many people in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, fans of Canadian teams are regulars in the city.
The Red Sox are playing games at Fenway Park without spectators, like all major-league clubs. But the pandemic has forced Toronto to play most of its home contests at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., after the federal government quashed a plan for the Blue Jays to play at Rogers Centre.
The NBA and NHL have resumed their seasons playing in bubbles, with no fans in attendance in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (basketball) and Toronto and Edmonton (hockey). In a normal season, Games 3 and 4 of the Raptors-Celtics series (this Thursday and Saturday) would be in Boston.
Major League Soccer returned in a bubble, but is now allowing teams to play in their home stadiums — with some teams going with limited fans, and some having no spectators. The New England Revolution and Toronto FC both aren’t allowing fans into their stadiums.
The NFL will kick off its season as scheduled next week, with some teams allowing fans. Fifty-four of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision universities — including those in the Pac-12 and Big 10 — have postponed their seasons while in Canada, both U Sports and the CFL cancelled their ’20 campaigns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For fans, at least many sports bars are open. Hicks said Game On! was closed for a few months until indoor dining was allowed to return in Boston.
Hicks said tables are at least six feet apart and all servers must wear masks.
“We have hand sanitizers everywhere,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to have many windows and big doors so we can open up a lot of it and people feel more comfortable coming in.
“It’s been difficult, but we’re making due.”
Not all establishments in Boston have been so fortunate. The Fours Boston, a popular sports bar across from TD Garden (home of the Celtics and NHL’s Bruins), shut down Monday after 44 years.
Bob Ryan, sports columnist emeritus for the Boston Globe, said there’s always an influx of Toronto baseball fans whenever the Blue Jays are in town. As a Red Sox season-ticket holder, Ryan saw it firsthand.
“When the Blue Jays come in, people manage to find tickets and there’s always a healthy representation,” Ryan said.
But Ryan said there’s little interest this year in the Red Sox (12-26), who are last in the American League East after having won four World Series titles since 2004. Boston blew a 2-0 lead after holding the Jays hitless through six innings Thursday, losing 6-2 in 10 innings in the opener of a five-game series.
From a sports perspective, there’s a lot more going than just baseball in the area.
The Celtics are up 2-1 in their playoff series with the Raptors, who got a buzzer-beating three from OG Anunoby to win Game 3 on Thursday. And the New England Patriots are about to open the ‘20 NFL campaign without star quarterback Tom Brady.
There was also interest in the Bruins before they were eliminated in five games by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Boston is used to winning. The Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox and Celtics have combined to win 12 championships this century.
“So as far as the Blue Jays and Red Sox are concerned it’s a yawner, no one’s paying attention to it,” Ryan said. “They (Red Sox) are historically bad, they’re en route to the worst season, percentage-wise, since 1932.
“That’s how bad it is.”
Ryan said the pandemic left Toronto fans without a chance to head to Beantown and strut their team colours for the first Raptors-Celtics playoff series in history. The defending NBA champions have enjoyed excellent fan support in many road venues in recent years.
“That’s the first time they’ve had that honour (as defending champs and) we didn’t have much of a season to verify this,” Ryan said. “It could very well be that there’d be a presence and you’d see them around town at the many places there are to go to before and after a game at the Garden.
“But all of that isn’t happening right now.”
The pandemic has hit the U.S. hard, killing more than 190,000 Americans. The country also has had over six million cases of COVID-19.
Ryan blames the U.S. for the Blue Jays’ inability to play at Rogers Centre.
“Through no fault of their own, that’s the great irony,” Ryan said. ”Canada is not the problem, we’re the pariah nation.
“People just don’t want to look in the mirror and face up to that. No one’s perfect, I’m sure, but our situation is a disgrace, it really is. Your CFL season was cancelled, that’s sobering. It’s just scary.”
Toronto restaurants were permitted to offer indoor dine-in service in July. But Real Sports, the city’s biggest sports bar, only opened to the public Aug. 24 after being part of the NHL bubble. The venue is operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Dan Morrow, MLSE’s vice-president of food and beverage, says the pandemic has made an impact.
“This whole area was built around having 50,000 (people) at Rogers Centre and 20,000 on a regular basis at Scotiabank Arena,” he said. “The struggle right now is on the whole downtown core, it’s very quiet.
“There’s something to be said for Jurassic Park and even when the Rogers Centre roof is open, it’s like a beacon that there’s a sports event happening. Without that happening, we’ve found the downtown core is actually quiet and most of it is COVID-19 related, there’s no cross-border tourism.”
Morrow said whenever the Blue Jays are at Rogers Centre, fans of their opposition make it to Toronto.
“For Jays games at Rogers Centre, we’d get Boston tourists coming up to Toronto, we’d get Yankees tourists coming when the Yankees are in town,” he said. “Labour Day week is typically a very busy week for tourism in downtown Toronto so that’s not happening.”
And less people means less revenue for restaurants.
“Restaurants, in general, are a low-margin business,” Morrow said. “We need capacity, we need people in the seats to be able to pay your rent and cover your costs.
“I think over time we need to figure out how there can be some sort of assistance to keep the restaurant business alive. I know the government has Canadian wage subsidy happening, I know there are some rent discussions happening now … there’s a lot of restaurants down here that are going to suffer if we don’t get people back into the area.”
But Morrow is confident once the world gets a firm grip on the novel coronavirus, fans will attend sports events again.
“I think people will get back to coming out and watching sports once we get some sort of normalcy back into our lives,” Morrow said.
“Will people still be interested in sports? I guess,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t want to turn back and resume that kind of life anymore than you’d want to abandon your other pursuits, your music, your art and your films and everything else.
“I think they’re all in the same category.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2020.