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Clevelanders Turn Out For Home Opener, Bringing More Life Back Downtown

Anne (left) and Alisha Silagy (right) are normally baseball season ticket holders. “I think the mask is very essential, so I’m glad that they’re making it a mandatory thing going in,” Alisha said [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]
Anne (left) and Alisha (right) Silagy stand outside Progressive Field.

Baseball is back in Cleveland as Progressive Field opens its doors Monday to fans for the first time since 2019.

But Opening Day 2021 comes with a list of new restrictions to ensure safety.

Fans will have limited seating options and must wear one of the approved mask options to limit spread of the coronavirus to games, including Monday’s face-off with the Kansas City Royals. Surgical masks, N95 masks without vents, double-layered cloth masks are in; bandanas, gaiters and masks with valves won’t make the cut.

For some fans, the changes aren’t having much impact on enjoyment.

“I’m just glad to be out,” said Robin Merbine, who wore a Cleveland Indians mask to the game. “This is the start of everything opening.”

The safety procedures also allow some fans to feel more comfortable. Carli Pajestka and her 5-year-old son Parker have been going to the home opener together since 2018, she said, and she’s happy with the limited capacity and required masking during the game. 

“I think they’re definitely putting the right procedures in place. We feel safe going, and we’re very excited,” Pajestka said. “We’re bringing our masks, we’re going to mask up while we’re in there, and sit just me and Parker.”

Some fans, like Rob Kocian, disagree with the restrictions.

“I think it’s a joke,” Kocian said. “I don’t think it does anything.”

The home opener also comes with new limits on spirit wear. Progressive Field guests won’t be permitted to wear Native American headdresses or face paint, as the team considers a name change due to concerns over cultural insensitivity. Many fans still wore Chief Wahoo apparel to the game Monday afternoon, though the bright red caricature of a Native American was removed from players’ caps and uniforms as of 2019.

The coming name change is disappointing to some fans, like Pajestka, who said she hopes the new name will have some Cleveland pride.

“Honestly, I’m going off the charts,” Pajestka said. “I wish it would just be like, the Clevelanders, wear our name loud and proud, but we’ll see.”

Downtown restaurant owners are hoping the return of baseball – with fans in the stands – will bring much-needed business back to the area. The pandemic has hit restaurants particularly hard as sporting events and performance venues closed their doors due to safety concerns, said Nick Kostis, owner of Pickwick and Frolic on Fourth Street.

“We’ve always been an event-driven community,” Kostis said. “So those events are definitely going to give us a spike in business, for those of us that remain in business.”

Pickwick and Frolic has been limited to less than 50 percent capacity, he said, both for dining and its theater venue. The restaurant was able to stay open, Kostis said, but had to reduce days and hours of operation, as well as staff. The bar space and other facilities are still limited or closed, he said, and there’s some concern about a future COVID-19 spike bringing another round of restrictions.

“There is concern for what is yet to come, and the ominous warnings that there is something underway, and it’s raising the level of apprehension again,” Kostis said.

But there has been increased traffic in recent weeks as weather improved and vaccinations continue, he said, and has even included out-of-town visitors from neighboring states ranging from Michigan and Pennsylvania to New York and Maryland.

“People will travel for something of entertainment that they want to see and they can access,” Kostis said. “Because there have been so few opportunities to get out to do something where they felt they would be safe, which is critical, we have enjoyed some activity.”

St. Patrick’s Day and other March events did spur some activity Downtown, said Doug Petkovic, owner of Mabel’s and Flannery’s. Opening Day at Progressive Field is continuing that momentum, he said.

“It feels to me like there’s a pent-up energy of people wanting to go out, of people wanting to gather, people wanting to do some things that you would say are normal in 2019,” Petkovic said. “By no means is this over, or are we out of the weeds in the hospitality industry. We’re not. But it is on an upward trend, and confidence feels good.”

There’s still the possibility for another uptick in COVID-19 cases this summer, Petkovic said. Ohio’s case numbers are going up again, he said, but the pandemic has changed the goals for his businesses. Right now, the priority is making people feel safe, he said.

But as restaurants look ahead to expanding business and capacity, there is a struggle to find the staff needed to support it. Petkovic said coming back from the pandemic doesn’t just rely on events like Opening Day – customers and the workforce alike need to be confident and safe going out Downtown.

“There is a huge shortage of labor, whether it be in the back of the house in the kitchens, or in the front of the house,” Petkovic said. “It’s been very difficult.”

Restaurant staffing concerns aren’t limited to Cleveland, either. Kostis serves on the state board for the Ohio Restaurants Association, and said job fairs and interviews aren’t turning out the volume of staff needed statewide.

“There’s concern whether we’re going to be able to staff properly to maintain the level of service that we were previously accustomed to,” Kostis said.