After shutting his downtown Minneapolis pub for the first few months of the pandemic, Dermot Cowley initially tried reopening last June. He called it quits after two weeks.
"It was a ghost town down here," said the owner of O'Donovan's Irish Pub, which is across the street from First Avenue and Target Center, and a block or so away from Target Field.
This week, Cowley and some other business owners are reopening for the biggest event downtown — and likely in the state — in more than a year: the first home game of the season for the Minnesota Twins.
Ten thousand fans will be allowed into Target Field. Many more are expected as the home opener, at least in typical years, draws people without tickets around the ballpark to be part of the excitement.
On top of that, there's the state high school girls' and boys' basketball tournament this week at Target Center, and Timberwolves home games that up to 3,000 people can now attend as state restrictions on crowds have eased. And there will be 17 Twins home games in the next month, which could bring 10,000 fans, or about a fourth of the stadium's capacity, downtown each time.
As vaccines that fight COVID-19 reach more people, Cowley said he hopes that crowd sizes will be able to increase as the summer goes on. "We are cautiously optimistic," he said. "Hopefully, by July 4th, we're looking at full stadiums."
The Twins home opener has prodded several eateries and watering holes downtown, including O'Donovan's, Gluek's Bar and Restaurant, and Cowboy Jack's, to spring back to life in recent days. A handful of others such as Sneaky Pete's and the Depot Tavern will reopen Thursday for the first time in months, albeit for limited hours and days.
Over the past month, since the trial began for former police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, downtown has felt even more empty because many buildings boarded up windows and entrances over concerns protests could get out of hand, as happened twice since the incident last May.
But as the Twins game neared this week, boards on some of the buildings started to come down.
"It feels wonderful," said Lee Holcomb, one of the owners of Gluek's.
The restaurant and bar had a big turnout, with many regulars and friends, when it reopened on Tuesday night for the first time in more than a year.
"I am so excited that they are reopening," said Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association. "This is their return to some kind of sense of normalcy and really signals that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter."
After a tough year of the pandemic and civil unrest, not even the rainy forecast for opening day is dampening some people's enthusiasm.
"This city is just starting to wake up now," said Pam McCrea, board chairwoman of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association. "People just have smiles on their faces [about the opener]. It's like weights are being lifted off their shoulders, which is just good to see."
Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the Twins game with the Seattle Mariners marks the beginning of the return of events, which is a big driver of the downtown economy. Twins games will give people who haven't been there for a while a reason to come back downtown, he said.
"When they come back and have a great experience, that should help dispel some of the concerns that maybe exist about the downtown environment right now," Cramer said.
The Minnesota Orchestra will resume live performances, albeit to reduced audiences, at Orchestra Hall in June. Broadway shows are expected to return to Hennepin Avenue this fall. And workers will begin heading back to their downtown offices this summer and fall.
"This sort of one-two punch of more people coming back to events and more office workers coming back over the course of the year will really help put the downtown economy back in a stronger position than it's been for months and months now," Cramer said.
Some downtown restaurants and bars remain closed, such as Kieran's Irish Pub and the Local. But he hopes they will begin to reopen in the coming weeks and months as more crowds return to the city.
Hotel bookings at the Hewing Hotel in the North Loop are back up but only at 50%, said Naomi Thompson, the hotel's lifestyle director. Its indoor restaurant, Tullibee, also just reopened, but can't yet operate at full capacity because of state restrictions limiting it to 75%.
The Hewing had planned a big outdoor party for the Twins home opener, with beer and cone-filled mashed potatoes, but canceled given the threat of rain.
So has "the home opener given us a bump? I think it will down the road, but for this very first game, we are not seeing it just yet," she said. "But we are super hopeful that we will."
The Loon Cafe has seen "very small" and "disappointing" crowds since it reopened in late February, a month after indoor service was able to resume in Minnesota, said owner Tim Mahoney. At this point, he thinks it's more the Chauvin trial that's keeping people way than the pandemic. But he thinks the home opener will be the start of a turnaround.
"The most exciting thing is we've got baseball. We've got fans," he said. "I think we're headed in the right direction."
He expects that patrons will begin showing up around noon to grab lunch and a drink before the game. He'll be at the door, greeting loyal customers, many of whom he hasn't seen for more than a year, before heading to the stadium himself for the game.
Shane Higgins, general manager of Brit's Pub, isn't sure how much of a bump in traffic he'll see for the game. But he's opening the bar earlier than usual for it.
"We're hoping we may get something," he said. "You've got to give it a try. We haven't had conventions" or other events that bring people to downtown hotels.
Brit's Pub reopened a few weeks ago at limited hours and days after being closed for seven months following a fire during a night of civil unrest in August. Business so far has been "OK," he said.
In addition to the return of fans at Twin games, he sees other promising signs ahead. The big screen where it broadcasts soccer and baseball games on the rooftop deck will be installed by next week. Its lawn bowling leagues, which were canceled last year, will be back this summer. And scheduling of private events have begun to pick up again, too.
"That's another sign of confidence," he said.
Cowley, of O'Donovan's, had debated whether to open three weeks ago for St. Patrick's Day, which is typically its busiest day of the year. But he worried there would be too big of a lull between then and the Twins home opener, so he decided to wait to reopen until this week.
There are still some unknowns, he said, such as how big the crowds will be heading to restaurants and bars.
His main concern right now is that he might end up being understaffed. He's had a hard time finding enough servers to hire. So he may not be able to accommodate as many patrons as he'd like. But he'd rather turn people away than having people be disappointed by the service.
"You want to put your best foot forward," he said. "So I'm nervous and excited."