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‘Baseball is back.’ After a year of COVID, St. Louis bars finally reopening, along with Busch Stadium

‘Baseball is back.’ After a year of COVID, St. Louis bars finally reopening, along with Busch Stadium

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ST. LOUIS — After the Washington Nationals knocked the Cardinals out of the 2019 playoffs, Kilroy’s St. Louis locked up for the winter, as it always does.

Earnings from the baseball season went to a few building repairs and upgrades — same as every offseason since the owners turned their auto shop into a bar when the new Busch Stadium opened next door.

“We thought we’d be back in the spring,” co-owner Brenda Randall said.

Fans celebrate Opening Day at Busch Stadium. Video by Hillary Levin

But with spring came the coronavirus pandemic, upending nearly every aspect of American life, from office work, to air travel, and of course, baseball. Opening day was pushed back for months as the virus spread, killing hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone. Downtown St. Louis lost foot traffic as offices sent employees home, concerts were canceled and stadiums went dark. Some downtown mainstays, such as the Missouri Bar & Grille and Mango, didn’t survive.

No baseball fans meant no business for Kilroy’s, which only opens its doors when Busch Stadium does. No fans also meant no one would pay for the 80 to 100 spots on the parking lots the family owns next to the bar. Kilroy’s shut down to wait out the pandemic.

“After 40 years of self-employment, we burned through our life savings in 18 months,” said Art Randall, Brenda’s husband.

Now they’re getting ready to reopen after a year lost, and the Cardinals return Thursday for a 3:15 p.m. game against Milwaukee at Busch Stadium.

The fence needed a powerwash and some graffiti in the back still needs removal. The freight trains that run along the tracks above the bar leave a coat of dust on everything, and the Randalls were busy Saturday cleaning up Kilroy’s to be ready for Thursday, when Busch lets fans in — albeit at about one-third its 45,538 capacity — for the first time since October 2019.

Under city health guidelines, Busch will stay at one-third capacity at least through April. Restrictions could be loosened as the season progresses if coronavirus cases trend down as more vaccines are distributed.

Art Randall will be happy to just start breaking even again, and enjoying game days. The owners are excited but a bit nervous.

“We all know how enthusiastic our Cardinals fans can be,” Brenda Randall said.

This season, they plan to keep Kilroy’s open Thursday through Saturday in addition to game days — an effort to recoup their losses from the pandemic. Art Randall figures it will take until 2026 before the family claws back to where it was before COVID. He suspects many businesses are in the same boat.

“It’ll appear they’re back to normal,” Art Randall said. “But they’re gonna feel this for four or five years.”

Just to the north, another game-day watering hole, Paddy O’s, is preparing for its biggest crowds since the pandemic began. The year before the virus, 2019, was one of its best ever, with the Blues winning the Stanley Cup and the Cardinals making it to the playoffs. While it operated with limited hours over the last year, the bar used the down time to upgrade TVs and other amenities, said manager Rob Colie.

“We are hiring folks back,” Colie said. “We are pretty close to being fully staffed up.”

With a large outdoor patio, he said Paddy O’s should be able to follow 50% capacity limits still in place for bars and restaurants. Colie is hoping virus cases drop and the city lifts restrictions later in the season, particularly the midnight bar curfew that will crimp sales when games go late.

But he’s enjoying the return of some familiar signs of spring.

“We’ve always taken care of the stadium workers,” he said Saturday. “The last few days, we’ve noticed the blue shirts come back in.”

Seat spacing and concession stand changes will be in place this year at Busch Stadium.

In Ballpark Village, the new Live! by Loews hotel, its restaurant, Clark & Bourbon, and outdoor bar, The Bullock, opened briefly just weeks before the pandemic locked down the country in March 2020. The restaurant and hotel reopened in June, and staff members have grown accustomed to social distancing and capacity restrictions.

“It’s been one thing to be operating under those auspices when there’s not many people around, but it’s been steadily increasing over the last few weeks, which is fantastic to see,” said Live! by Loews general manager Geneya Sauro.

The Bullock, the hotel’s upscale outdoor bar overlooking the north side of Busch Stadium, will reopen to the public on Thursday after being closed since the end of summer. Sauro said Loews is “actively hiring” in anticipation of growing crowds, and she suspects she’ll have to hire even more as baseball crowds grow.

“We’re close to being ready for the size of crowds that are permitted at this point,” Sauro recently said. “We all anticipate, the Cardinals and the rest of us downtown, that the attendance number will increase throughout the summer, and hopefully by mid- to late-season we’ll be close to full capacity at the stadium.”

Over on south Broadway, The Angry Beaver owner Ben Morgan said they’ve “hung in there” over the last year, leaning on their regulars in the absence of Cardinals fans. Morgan said he’s “fired up” for baseball’s return downtown. And the Cards look to have a pretty good roster this year, too, he added.

“Hell, yeah, we’re excited,” Morgan said. “Baseball is back.”

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