On a recent weekday, Stephanie Ganal received shipments of jerseys with the names of the new additions to the Chicago White Sox — including closing pitcher Liam Hendriks.
The Sox are anticipating big things this season from Hendriks and the rest of the team. And the better the Sox, the better for business at Grandstand, a sportswear shop just a block away from Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Our business relies on grown men playing sports,” said Ganal, whose family has owned Grandstand for decades, selling everything from Sox T-shirts and pennants to shot glasses and items for pets.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to lock down life in Chicago and nationwide, that included Major League Baseball, delaying the 2020 season just as it was about to start. More importantly, no fans were allowed at Guaranteed Rate and Wrigley Field.
It was tough on fans and teams, but also on businesses like Grandstand that depend on people showing up for home games.
“It was March 21,” Ganal recalled. “We were shut down, and at that point we received over half of our shipments for opening day. So, it was brutal because the bills were still due and there was no business.”
But now, there’s a new sense of optimism as the 2021 season gets underway in a few weeks, and a limited number of fans will be allowed to return to Chicago’s two ballparks. Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Feb. 8 that Guaranteed Rate and Wrigley can each allow 20% capacity, which is about 8,000 fans.
For Ganal, even limited capacity is good news. She’s hiring new employees and has ordered the same amount of merchandise that she would for a normal season.
“As a fan, just as a human being living through this right now, we’ll take anything,” Ganal said.
At Mitchell’s Tap in Bridgeport, bartender Jennifer Yolich welcomes the start of baseball, although her business will be limited to 50% indoor capacity under the current city guidelines.
“We can have 25 people inside and we have a pretty big yard here, and we have the heated garage. So we can sit quite a few more people,” Yolich said.
The South Side, where Guaranteed Rate is located and where many Black and Latino residents live, has seen a disproportionate number of people of color contracting and dying from COVID-19.
Wrigleville looks for an upswing
But the impact has also been felt on the North Side where the Cubs play.
Lakeview Pantry, for example, says it saw a 400% increase in demand for its food giveaways as the pandemic hit, hurting businesses and workers.
“COVID devastated the ward in many ways,” said Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward. “When the Cubs are in town, they could add a third to the economy. With COVID we lost a lot of everything, and we’re off to a slow start in 2021.”
The alderman said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if business in the area is down 30% to 40%. But he’s hoping the return of fans to Wrigley will spark an economic revival.
“We’re an entertainment area,” Tunney said. “I think we’re very excited about this incremental approach to opening and trying to keep everyone safe.”
Sean McNeill couldn’t agree more. He’s the manager at Sports World Chicago, a jersey and souvenir shop right across from Wrigley’s iconic red marquee.
“We have stock coming in. Things are great. There’s enthusiasm and there’s people walking around,” McNeill said.
“We have kept most of our staff, just on shorter work weeks,” he added. “As far as inventory, we scaled back from previous years.”
At Nola Bar & Kitchen, a New Orleans-style restaurant on Clark Street, co-owner Ed Cheung said having more fans in the area will help all the businesses, especially the sports bars and sit-down establishments.
“We could always use some people around here. It looks like a ghost town so far this year. Having people will pump some life into the area.” Cheung said.
“Last season, it was kind of strange and eerie,” he added. “But we adapted and concentrated on our delivery and that helped us out. Our landlord helped us out on lowering the rent so we could survive. And the government helped with a PPE loan. Even if we get only two people in the stadium, that’s two more than we had last year.”
So far, neither the Cubs or Sox have said whether beer and hot dog vendors will be back in the stands.
“It almost seems like there’s no way that can happen during this recovery,” said Lloyd Rutzky, a veteran vendor at both ballparks. “No one is going to pour things and handle your beer or hot dog.”
Rutzky won’t be working the stands this season — he decided to retire last season when vendors weren’t needed. Now that fans are coming back, “I’m going to miss the experience,” he said.
The Cubs have their season and home opener on April 1 against the Pirates. The Sox begin their season on the road, then have their home opener against the Royals on April 8.
For Stephanie Ganal at Grandstand, the return of baseball — and fans — isn’t just about business. It’s the return of an experience she missed last season.
“When there’s a game going on, you can hear the crowd from our doors. It’s probably one of my favorite things ever growing up,” she said.
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana and Chicago’s South Side for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.