COVID-19 forces workers at sports bars, Scotiabank Arena to pay the price as pro leagues shut down

Workers at sports bars, Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field are facing fewer hours and even layoffs as COVID-19 forces the NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer to pause their seasons.

MLSE says it will help its event workers financially while they're on EI

Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert, rear, the player suspected of having tested positive for COVID-19, in action against the Toronto Raptors. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

When the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer shut down their operations this week in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto's pro athletes weren't the only ones to suddenly have time on their hands.

Employees, both full-time and part-time, who work in the city's downtown sports bars are also looking at fewer hours, while thousands of workers at Scotiabank Arena, where the NHL's Maple Leafs and the NBA's Raptors play, are looking at layoffs.

Suthish Sundarun, a cook at The Pint Public House on Front Street West near Rogers Centre, says the number of patrons drawn is down drastically since the leagues suspended their seasons.

"So, we have, like, 500 at least a day ... when this place is busy and these days it's barely touching, like, 50 or 40."

Sundarun, like most of the staff at the popular restaurant and bar, is concerned he will have his hours cut.

Owner Cesar Mesen says those decisions haven't been made yet and he hopes to keep staff employed by focusing on delivering food to customers' homes.

'We have to find a way to stay alive'

"Most people will be opting to stay home and we have to find a way to stay alive."

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Hotel, Restaurant and Motel Association, says that's the reality for operators in the hospitality industry.

"You have to run the business accordingly. So there will be some trimming of costs and expenditures," he said.

"Not all business, not all restaurants, are impacted by sports, but those that are in the vicinity of the downtown area will be, so now they are just going through a stage of forecasting and taking appropriate action."

Toronto Raptors fans in Jurassic Park during happier times. Restaurants and bars, especially downtown, have had a drop-off in business due to the cancellation of pro sports events. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Elenis said judging by what happened during the SARS outbreak in Toronto back in 2003 and 2004, part timers who fill in during high-demand periods will be the obvious first cuts. 

"Hopefully, it will not be reflected in the core full-time positions at this point. It's a bit early right now."

Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Leafs, Raptors, Argonauts and Toronto FC, as well as Scotiabank Arena, has already taken steps.

Company spokesperson Dave Haggith says the postponement of all MLSE-related events and games has halted the company's current operations, which will have a direct impact on close to 4,000 full-time and part-time event employees.

"We are one team and know it is important to support all our hourly employees," said Haggith.

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Hotel, Restaurant and Motel Association, says the hospitality industry operates on very tight margins and layoffs due to the cancellation of professional sports games may be a reality. (CBC)

MSLE will be giving all laid-off employees a financial payment to top up their Employment Insurance benefits to 95 per cent of their regular average earnings for four weeks. Haggith says this is the maximum allowed by Service Canada for them to be eligible for their full EI benefits.

Additionally, those employees who do not qualify for EI benefits will still be paid the equivalent MLSE top-up portion.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Friday the federal government will make $10 billion available to businesses through a credit facility program.

He said it was an effective tool during the 2008 financial crisis.

Morneau said he's also been in touch with CEOs of the major banks, who told him they will "support businesses and individuals" with fairness and compassion.

Meanwhile, back at the Pint Pub, Sundarun just hopes he will be able to cover his monthly expenses. 

"We should be able to get our basic bills out rather than, you know, having stress."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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