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LINCOLN — Sports bar owners and managers aren’t sure what to expect for the opening of the Husker football season, which begins Saturday morning at Ohio State and continues with the home opener on Halloween.
On one hand, they hope for somewhat close to a normal game-day experience to make up for the difficult months of the pandemic. On the other, those hopes have been dimmed by the surging virus and a renewed need to practice social distancing and limit how many people walk in their doors.
The mantra of Lincoln and Omaha bar owners: Keep your fingers crossed and be ready for anything.
“The profit comes during football,” said Eric F. Marsh, owner of Longwell’s bar in Lincoln’s Haymarket. “And that’s also where you build up your fat reserves to get through the lean times of the year. I just hope that this year that that is possible for us.”
Bar owners have some good news.
“Bringing sports back has brought back our business,” said Kevin Blazek, owner of N Zone, a sports bar also in Lincoln’s Haymarket.
Todd Campfield, N Zone general manager, said that during the past month, business has started to pick up with NFL football and college football in the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, among others, returning to TV screens.
The Huskers’ return could be a bigger boon.
But bars also must deal with some bad news.
With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations hitting peak levels, Nebraskans will have to abide by Gov. Pete Ricketts’ fresh set of directed health measures.
In bars and restaurants, groups must maintain a minimum of 6 feet of separation and consist of no more than eight people. Also, people patronizing bars and restaurants must remain seated unless they are ordering food, using the restroom or playing games. They also must follow Lincoln’s and Omaha’s mask mandates.
Marsh said the state’s new health measures won’t affect his business too much, as Lincoln’s health measures already required parties to remain under eight people, along with the seating requirement.
Those measures put bars in sometimes difficult enforcement positions. These days, it’s all part of doing business, said Marsh, who routinely has to tell people to stop dancing and sit down in order to comply with health measures. He worries how that will affect people and their willingness to come out for game days.
For good reason.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has asked for Husker fans to “homegate” come game day or stay home and gather in small groups — ideally, outside.
The challenge isn’t limited to Lincoln operations.
“Everybody’s down,” said Anthony Yarger, general manager of Oscar’s Pizza & Sports Grille in Omaha. “I can’t say that it’s been the best year in the world. It’s down from previous years exponentially, but you just gotta fight through it and make it work.”
Oscar’s has a steady foundation of takeout business, Yarger said, adding that the Omaha sports bar never had to close when many other businesses did in mid-March.
On a normal game day, Yarger said, Oscar’s does a lot of its business on takeout orders of pizza and wings. Yarger hopes the business still can have a good mix of safe dining in and takeout, but he really doesn’t know what fans will do on game day.
The return of Husker football certainly can’t hurt.
It’s estimated that Nebraska athletics have a $245.5 million economic impact in Lincoln every year, according to a 2014 study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bureau of Business Research.
“I’ll take a bad Husker game over a perfect concert,” said Marsh, the Longwell’s owner.
Marsh said he hopes for a safe but good turnout come Halloween, when NU welcomes Wisconsin to Lincoln, but like many things in 2020, the game-day experience in Lincoln won’t be the same.
“You can’t make up for 90,000 people not being there on a Saturday afternoon,” said Campfield, the N Zone general manager. “There’s 90,000 people there. You can’t make that up.”