Nfld. & Labrador

Bingo with plastic dividers: How service clubs are fighting for their lives in the pandemic

Service clubs that normally organize to raise money for causes in their community are doing something different this fall: raising funds for their own survival.

Clubs that should have been busy through the summer were instead idle

It's not old-school bingo. Plastic sheets and a little hardware, though, will make tables like these safe for players in Old Perlican. (Cec Haire/CBC)

Service clubs that normally organize to raise money for causes in their community are doing something different this fall: raising funds for their own survival.

Forced to close in March, they sat largely idle through an abysmal summer until early September.

They are now dealing with serious financial losses, but are crafting strategies to stay afloat.

"We've had zero revenue since March 16," said John MacDonald, president of Branch 56 of the Royal Canadian Legion in the Pleasantville neighbourhood St. John's.

The legion's building, along Quidi Vidi Lake, would normally be busy every summer weekend with weddings, birthday parties and receptions. All of those activities generated money for the branch, from hall rentals, catering and bar service.

"Generally speaking, we had a healthy bank account from booking weddings, parties," MacDonald said.

During the six-month closure, monthly bills still had to be paid. MacDonald said they managed to hold on.

John MacDonald says Branch 56 of the Royal Canadian Legion is only now pulling in revenue, after six brutal months of being idle. (Cec Haire/CBC)

"We had some money in the bank account. The bank account is still in a positive potion, but it's gradually dropping," said MacDonald.

That's why opening the legion's doors on Sept. 3 was so important.

"The fact that we're open now will help us with our revenue," said MacDonald. "We're open for business.… Two dart leagues have already started. Tonight we have a birthday party and tomorrow night we have 80 people upstairs for a reception."

Across town, at the Elks Club on Carpasian Road, members are in survival mode too.

It recently held a fundraiser for itself: a membership drive in an effort to get badly needed cash in the door.

Classic-rock cover band Cold Plate did its part to help.

"Cold Plate will play at no cost. That's our donation," said band member Colin Simms, a lodge member and a member of the entertainment committee.

"The Elks Club and so many clubs in the province, and in the country, are suffering financially because of COVID."

Jocelyn Greene, who chairs the management committee, said revenue is down 80 per cent.

"We have been hit really hard by this pandemic," Greene said. "We haven't been able to [host weddings and parties]. We haven't been able to use our kitchen."

The club is back in business, but with a leaner approach, cutting back on salaries and hours of operation.

"We've turned it around," said Greene.

Despite their best effort to keep it open Greene said the future, like most things, is uncertain.

"We won't be operating if we don't make money," she said. 

And if a second wave brings more restrictions? 

"We're monitoring it every month. And if we start losing money, we have to change our focus or possibly close our doors. We're not going to sink."

Social? Check. Socially distant? Ditto

In Conception Bay North, in Old Perlican, one service club has been creative to get cash in the door.

Mike Foote, president of the Baccalieu Lions Club, said they had to make modifications to bring back indoor bingo.

They bought see-through plastic and stainless steel rods, and screwed them onto tables to create dividers so players can be social but socially distant.

Jocelyn Greene is hopeful the Elks Club will pull through, but warns, 'If we start losing money, we have to change our focus or possibly close our doors.' (Cec Haire/CBC)

"They can see each other still and can talk back and forth. They're in their own cube and they're safe," Foote said.

"And those areas can be sanitized when they all leave."

Foote said attendance is increasing. "It was slow at first because most of the residents that come to bingo are of the older generation and they're concerned about their health," he said. "They're more comfortable with the setup and more are showing up." 

Bingo, he's quick to point out, is about more than just generating revenue.

"For some people it's their only night out for the week. It's a social activity for them," said Foote. "Yes, it's a fundraiser but it's also a service project because you give people somewhere to go."

Financially, he said, his club is "doing OK." It has been raising money selling hot turkey takeouts and fish-and-chip suppers.

The site of countless wedding receptions and private functions, the great hall of the Royal Canadian Legion in Pleasantville was empty from the middle of March to early September. (Cec Haire/CBC )

Foote is also district governor for 51 Lions clubs, from Gander to Pouch Cove. Some clubs are struggling, he said, although he is grateful their fiscal year starts in July.

"When everything closed, they still had some money left to keep the wolves away. And thankfully when July came, our new year rolled around and restrictions started to lift [and] some minor fundraising activities took off," he said. "Some clubs are doing 50-50 draws selling tickets through email transfers. We had a club do a bobber race."

Despite those successes, some clubs, he admitted, face rocky times. "We still have a number of clubs still searching their way out of this yet."

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