CHICAGO – The NCAA Tournament and bars were made for each other, with fans of powerhouse teams like Gonzaga and longshots like Colgate pouring in to cheer their teams. Until last year, that is, when COVID-19 blew up everybody’s brackets.
This year, the tournament’s back, and bars and restaurants, some shuttered for months, are open for March Madness, though things may look a little different.
Only a limited number of fans will be allowed in the stands to watch the games in Indiana as the tournament starts Thursday. As for those who choose to watch at bars or restaurants, their experiences will vary depending on their location.
Some bars are under strict limits on the number of people allowed inside and will require fans to wear masks and keep their distance. Others could be packed to capacity with mask-less fans.
So if somebody on the Fighting Illini hits a game winner at the buzzer, back at the Esquire Lounge in Champaign, where the University of Illinois is located, any hugging and high fiving will be limited to people sitting at the same table, which are separated by 6 feet (2 meters) and Plexiglass barriers.
“You can hug the people at your table,” said co-owner Paul Higgins. “It’s not quite as fun.”
But if a Baylor player hits the same shot, in Texas — where all those rules and much of the Plexiglass disappeared after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott lifted restrictions — the scene will be much different.
“We’re gonna be packed,” said Clint Josey, owner of Coach’s Barbecue Smoke House in Waco, near campus.
All of this easing and lifting of restrictions has public health experts worried about potential superspreader events at bars around the country. March Madness arrives as vaccinations increase in the U.S. and the death toll from COVID-19 has dropped, but health experts note that many seniors and other at-risk people still haven't been vaccinated.
“This is a major sporting event and all these fans are going to be allowed to be together indoors, (creating) a lot of transmission possibilities,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
“When bars are crowded the noise level goes up and then people talk more loudly and talking loudly projects the virus father into the air if you’re infected,” he said.
Heading into Lottie's Pub in Chicago last week, Alex Kedzie said, “People are just happy for some sort of normalcy.”
Happy or not, some don’t agree sitting in a bar now is a good idea.
“This thing’s not over,” said Al Yellon, a 1978 graduate of Colgate, said of the pandemic, explaining why he won’t set foot in a bar to watch his alma mater play in the tournament. Though, he’s comfortable enough to drive from Chicago to Arizona to sit outside and watch the Cubs during spring training, taking a seat at a bar is a non-starter. “Even if you have mask wearing rules, you’re putting people in close proximity, and everybody is taking masks off (to drink).”
Concerns about the virus that has killed well over a half million people in the U.S. are strong enough that even in some places where restrictions have been lifted, fans and businesses continue to take precautions.
In Nacogdoches, Texas, where excitement is high because the local college, Stephen F. Austin State University, made it into the tournament, Brian Oswald, who teaches forestry, plans to go to a bar to watch some games. But not before doing some research.
“I'm going to see what bar is showing it (the tournament) and what their procedures are when it comes to masks,” Oswald said.
In Iowa, fans are expected to flock to bars and restaurants hoping to see the Hawkeyes to win it all for the first time in history. Despite Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds lifting mask and social distancing mandates last month, Tailgators in Coralville continues to keep tables 6 feet apart, said manager Heather Henderson. Customers will be asked to wear masks, but only employees will be required to do so, she noted.
At Kilroy's in Indianapolis, near where many of the games will be played, about 150 people will be allowed in, down from some 400 during the tournament two years ago. Manager Jade Sharpe said two 70-inch TVs have been set up outside to go with the three already out there. “We tented the existing patios and tented out into the street next to us and added TVs and speakers," she said.
In Chicago, city inspectors cite bars and restaurants that violate strict capacity rules.
“Where there are specific areas of focus ... like March Madness, we will be paying extra attention," Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, said.
Associated Press journalist Shafkat Anowar contributed to this story from Chicago.