By Tom Shine, KMUW, original article link
Life was pretty good last February.
The pandemic was still a few weeks away, businesses were open, no one was wearing a face mask … and the Chiefs won the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.
One year later, about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the Chiefs are back in the Super Bowl. They will play Tampa Bay on Sunday in Super Bowl LV.
But this year’s game will be played under restrictions that have become the new normal, courtesy of the pandemic. That means sports bars will operate with limited capacity and be required to follow other health guidelines, like spacing out tables.
The Super Bowl isn’t traditionally a big day for sports bars, said some of the people who run them in Wichita. They said most fans tend to gravitate toward house parties or family gatherings.
But the Chiefs changed that dynamic last year.
“It was the busiest Super Bowl we had had in 25 years because the Chiefs were in it,” said Heather Westfall, co-owner Walt’s on East Central.
“It definitely helps when the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl.”
Kelsey Rockett, the general manager at Chicken N Pickle in east Wichita, agrees.
“It was a phenomenal turnout,” she said of last year’s Super Bowl between the Chiefs and San Francisco. “We had, I believe it was 150 people that bought tickets to that event. And that wasn’t including people who just showed up on property to watch it in other areas.
“It was a blast.”
In total, she said Chicken N Pickle probably had between 250 and 300 people at its three-acre facility.
Sharon Dopps manages the Emerson Biggin’s Sports Bar and Grill in west Wichita. She said the crowd there actually grew after the game ended, as fans showed up to celebrate.
She’s not expecting a repeat performance.
“We did not have the turnout that we would have regularly had for the AFC championship game,” she said of the Chiefs-Buffalo game on Jan. 24. “And so we’re expecting the Super Bowl to be … on a lot smaller scale.”
Restrictions on Super Bowl Sunday crowds is just another disappointment in what has been a disappointing time for bars and restaurants in general.
Side Pockets in west Wichita likely will have to turn away customers on Sunday because of seating limits. It normally can hold nearly 400 people but is now limited to 150 under county health rules.
General manager Lori Conner describes the last 12 months as “very difficult.”
“Not just in the aspect of the restaurant itself, the bar itself … (but) employees,” Conner said. “We’re a family at Side Pockets and everybody just struggles, including the business.”
Sedgwick County did loosen bar and restaurant restrictions this week, which will allow sports bars to squeeze in a few more fans on Sunday. They can admit up to 75% of their building’s capacity or 150 people, whichever is less. That’s up from 50% and 100 people.
Westfall, the co-owner of Walt’s, says not being able to take full advantage of the Chiefs trying to win a second consecutive title is disappointing. She will be limited to 100 people under the new guidelines. But she hopes the county’s action this week is the first step in ultimately eliminating all of the health restrictions.
“It is very frustrating, but at the same time, we’re happy that we’re just slowly lifting … because I’m really more concerned about March Madness right now,” she said.
“That’s a really good season for us.”