How sports bars have struggled to stay open in the pandemic

Cutouts of sports stars occupy seats at Major Goolsby's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in an attempt to recreate a sports bar atmosphere and ensure social distancing. Major Goolsby's

Show up to Major Goolsby's these days and you might find yourself watching a game with Aaron Rodgers, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Vince Lombardi.

The bar -- which has been a landmark in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for more than 45 years -- has had to dress up cardboard cutouts of sports stars and seat them at tables to ensure social distancing and bring back a sports bar vibe.

Major Goolsby's is one of the more than 59,000 bar and nightclub businesses in the United States that have had to adapt services to mask-wearing and social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in mid-March 2020.

The bar immediately closed when the pandemic took hold in the United States in March, and only just reopened in August. Pay cuts were made, but shutting down was never an option for the owners.

"[The owners] will do whatever they need to to keep us going, and keep people on the clock," General Manager Marty Petricca told ESPN. Luckily, "it's been a little more steady" as of late, Petricca said, despite restrictions that call for six feet of social distancing inside and outside, as well as a safety plan approved by the city.

But recreating a quintessential sports bar atmosphere in a place that was usually full of 400 patrons has been tough, Petricca said. The support from residents has been imperative, from takeout orders from people who don't feel safe inside or loyal fans coming to pound beer specials to watch college basketball. The cutouts help, too.

"We're probably the most socially distanced bar in the city right now because we have all this space," Petricca said.

In Kansas City, Missouri, The Blue Line -- known for nine years of serving hockey fans -- was able to expand its outdoor business into the street, which was a big help during summer and into the milder part of autumn, owner Steve Stegall told ESPN.

It's still been a struggle, missing out on days like St. Patrick's Day and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

"It's been a bitch to survive," Stegall said. "But, we're very, very blessed with a lot of our loyal customers."

Stegall cited St. Louis Blues fans as being the most loyal and loudest. "On top of them, plus our regulars, they create our atmosphere."

The Blue Line is an older building right in the heart of the historic Missouri-side of Kansas City, known not just for wild fans, but also its beer selection and memorabilia adorning every wall. Stegall lets large groups make reservations now, which has been crucial for Kansas City Chiefs games. The groups show up at 1 p.m. -- even for a night game.

Closing was also not an option for Stegall, who owns the bar with his father. At one point, the two of them stopped paying themselves so staff could stay employed.

"We're on the rebound," he said.

Sadly, other sports bars are not so lucky.

As of Dec. 1, nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants were "closed permanently or long-term," according to a study conducted by the National Restaurant Association -- which equals more than 110,000 service-industry businesses across the country.

Foley's, an iconic sports bar in Midtown Manhattan, was one of those businesses that fell victim to COVID-19, despite efforts to keep it afloat.

In May, owner Shaun Clancy announced that his bar -- known for its collection of more than 4,000 autographed baseballs on display, as well as a handful of other sports memorabilia -- would be closing forever since he had run out of money to pay his staff. His announcement on Twitter has been seen by more than three million people -- he told ESPN his phone froze and was unusable with messages of condolences the day he posted it.

It was the outpouring of support since then that has made Clancy realize that the bar will be able to open back up, though he doesn't know when or where.

"We're basically kind of in limbo right now," he told ESPN. "We just don't know what the future holds. Will people ever want to be wedged into a sports bar again?"

In the meantime, Clancy has been able to use what he called "being the face of what COVID did to New York" to help the staff of 15 he had to lay off.

When people found out about Foley's closure, they wanted to buy fixtures, menus, shirts, memorabilia -- whatever they could get their hands on to remember an iconic New York City sports bar. All that money has gone to the staff, as will money from a pop-up shop planned for around St. Patrick's Day, a typically wild holiday for the bar.

"The one thing that's most important, Foley's was never about the memorabilia, never about me," Clancy told ESPN. "It was about the people -- what made Foley's was the people. The people coming through the doors. We keep that spirit alive. I look forward to the day we bring it back."