It was Saturday night in downtown San Diego, and J Street near Petco Park Baseball Stadium was bustling.
Fans of the hometown of Padres, many adorned with team equipment, packed the bars and restaurants with more waiting time in line and happy to do so after a year of pandemic.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” said attorney Chris Schon, 33, as he waited for a table outside Bub’s at Ballpark, a sports bar.
No matter how festive the scene is, it still highlights some of the boundaries that emerge in the United States’ economic recovery.
The Padres have “sold out” most every game since Major League Baseball reopened a month ago, but at the age of coronavirus, that means hitting an attendance limit of around 15,000, or about a third of capacity. Elsewhere in the league, the results lag behind.
The surrounding restaurants, depending on the crowds about the summer park, are still limited to 50% capacity in California for at least another month. Owners expect depressed incomes through 2021 and are concerned that even if restrictions are lifted, people will hesitate to participate in the crowds that are just standing.
“Back in the good old days, we were four or five deep in the bar sipping beer …. Should people be turned off by it?” wondered Brant Crenshaw, a partner at the bar and restaurant Social Tap, where big-screen TVs and views of the ballpark window are a draw.
Opening day income this year? Around $ 15,000 versus $ 30,000 to $ 40,000 previous years.
‘DO NOT BACK TO WHERE WE WERE’
The start of a full baseball season with 162 games in print was a milestone in the reopening of the United States. The 2020 season, shortened to 60 games and played in empty stadiums, gave way to fanfare from the opening day 2021 and dreams of playoffs packed with jubilant crowds come in October.
Restrictions become easier as coronavirus vaccinations continue and daily infections and deaths subside.
Among the largest U.S. states, Texas and Florida, have dropped all COVID-related borders, New York allows restaurants to reopen at full capacity on May 19, and California plans to lift most of the remaining restrictions on June 15.
However, data includes national travel statistics as well stadium for stadium baseball meeting prepared by Reuters suggests that people remain hesitant and puts a potential brake on how quickly some parts of the economy will improve.
The 29 US-based MLB stadiums sell on average just under 74.8% of the limited number of seats each team has made available. This can be compared to an average paid attendance of 67.6% in fully open stadiums before the pandemic. While it is higher now, it is not higher than at a time when households have recorded record levels over the past year.
The 30-team MLBs a non-American club, the Toronto Blue Jays, play at a smaller league stadium in Florida due to travel restrictions between Canada and the United States.
More broadly, the flight has climbed back to only around 60% of the levels before the pandemic. An April conference board survey found that 43% of respondents planned a holiday over the next six months, up from around 30% during the pandemic, but well with the 55% or more before the health crisis.
Consumers spent a lot on goods in large parts of the pandemic, but services make up two thirds of the economy, so a complete recovery needs to be spent on everything from health services to baseball games to find back.
“When are things going to return to normal? When people no longer worry about the virus,” said Tim Duy, chief economist at SGH Macro Advisors and an economics professor at the University of Oregon. “If you are still not willing to go to a ball game, if you can not get more than 60% travel, we are not back to where we were.”
‘APOCALYPSE’ PROVIDES ‘ELECTRIC’
Near Petco Park, but for the few face masks in the crowd, things looked like they did before the pandemic. Firefighters played Wiffle ball outside their station. A jazz band played around the corner.
If last year’s emptied center “was the apocalypse,” said Cory Whitmore, 44, a cybersecurity engineer wearing the Basic Bar / Pizza “Friar Faithful” jersey, that Saturday’s scene had now become “electric.”
Erik Tesmer, Basics’ general manager and part owner, said that the baseball season includes around 70% of the business in his industrial brick building, formerly the home of a repair shop for horse-drawn carriages and a surfboard company.
Revenue fell to 25% of normal in 2020, and the restaurant survived only thanks to two loans from the Paycheck Protection Program from the federal government. Basic was able to keep around 15 employees on payroll, down from 50, Tesmer said.
Baseball may be back, and for long-suffering Padres fans, there is even hope that the team’s out-of-season spending on players will mean wins – and sales – as stadium attendance limits are likely to increase through the summer.
But Tesmer notices the holes in San Diego’s larger ecosystem. Comic-Con, a comics and entertainment convention in the summer, was canceled last year and again in 2021, and so was a music festival that was to move downtown. Basic will be lucky to generate 50% of typical revenue this year, Tesmer said.
His best hope, he said, is for a winning Padres season.
“With a good season … we can be packed wall to wall, and everyone is in a good mood and ready to get back to normal,” he said. “It will definitely help us if there are playoffs.”
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