TORONTO — Downtown Toronto businesses were buzzing with anticipation Saturday as the city's three main sports franchises are welcoming thousands of fans to games for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
After nearly two years of pain that included forced closures and layoffs, restaurants and bars are bracing for full houses after the Toronto Blue Jays' baseball season got underway and as the Maple Leafs and Raptors prepared for playoff runs.
"I am so happy, it actually kind of makes me emotional," said Natalia de Carvalho, manager of the Fox and Fiddle bar a short walk from the Rogers Centre.
"Things are getting back to normal. The mood of the city is so much better. Everyone is happy. People are here. Tourism's back. It's great for the city."
She said the bar was so full for Friday's Jays home opener that it had a security guard to control the crowd lined up outside.
The pandemic has been a trying time for hospitality businesses, especially those located near sports venues that were closed and then required to limit the size of crowds.
COVID-19 restrictions forced the baseball team to play all of 2020 and most of 2021 in Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y. While the team did return to Toronto late last summer, Ontario still had capacity limits in place for most venues, limiting the cavernous Rogers Centre to just 15,000 fans.
Fox and Fiddle tried everything it could to stay afloat, but takeout options that helped restaurants didn't really work for the bar. Business plunged by more than half.
It faced great uncertainty as it was ordered to shut with little notice. All the beer and purchases went to waste when the plug was pulled on opening.
"It's been brutal, brutal," de Carvalho said. "We'd spend all this money to conform to these new regulations to make money, and then they'd take them away."
A sea of blue game jerseys were on full display around the Rogers Centre 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 over the crowd while gruffy scalpers were once again yelling "tickets" in an invitation to those eager for a seat and the bobblehead giveaway.
Craig Olsen and his buddies flew in 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 music blared, while it was a party inside for Friday's opener, he said, heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame before returning for a second game.
"Wow, what a surprise. We said we should have came here a long time ago."
Like other fans, Olsen is already forecasting a World Series win, if the pitching can hold up.
Just blocks away, the Scotiabank Centre is hosting the final games of the NHL and NBA seasons before the respective teams begin playoff runs.
Diehard Leafs fans, meanwhile, tried to put last year's playoff loss to rest as their team prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens Saturday evening. The Habs have been eliminated from the playoffs this year, after making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021.
The Raptors will be hosting the playoffs for the first time since winning the championship in 2019. Jurassic Park is once again being assembled outside the arena.
Toronto was the only NBA team to play outside its market last season as they were forced to camp out 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 Eastern Conference semifinals in 2020.
Activity by the three professional sports team is very important for business, Olsen said.
"I think it's good for just the heartbeat of the city," he said.
The managers of two restaurants located in the shadow of the Rogers Centre said Friday's strong business portends well for the coming months.
"We were sold out indoors and we 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 will return to the strong summer it experienced pre-pandemic.
Friday's first full house in a while was amazing for the Pint after it was forced to lay off its entire staff and operate just with managers, said Melissa McLennan.
"We had so much fun. So good to see us being at full capacity and having the stands in full capacity is just a really, really, really exciting time."
None of business or fans were expecting that a sixth wave of the pandemic will disrupt their high hopes.
Don Juan food truck owner Iham Yilmaz was glad to be back at work Friday for the first time since the pandemic struck.
While business was good, Yilmaz isn't expecting a quick recovery.
"Not normal, but better than not working."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2022.
Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press