CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids restaurants report fewer customers from high school volleyball tournament

Surge of COVID-19 cases appears to hamper traffic from statewide event

Janesville's Naomi Hovenga (1) and Mackenzie Bengen (13) celebrate a point with their teammates during their Class 1A st
Janesville’s Naomi Hovenga (1) and Mackenzie Bengen (13) celebrate a point with their teammates during their Class 1A state quarterfinal match Tuesday at the state volleyball tournament at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse. The city typically sees more than a $1 million economic boost from visitors during the tournament, though that impact was muted this year because of the coronavirus, several restaurant owners said. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Map Room was ready for a rush of customers from last week’s state volleyball tournament. Christina Springman, co-owner of the downtown restaurant, doubled her staff working those days.

On the other side of the river, Bari Italian had extra personal protective equipment on hand ahead of the four-day tournament.

It’s estimated the annual high school tournament typically provides an economic impact of $1.9 million — with 20,000 visitors eating meals, booking hotel rooms and buying items. But that’s in normal times.

The pandemic, and its public health risks, muted the economic boon this year, some downtown restaurant managers say.

“Historically, it’s been a very good thing for downtown, but, obviously, with the times, it was a little smaller and not as lucrative as it was in the past,” said Justin Zehr, co-owner of Bricks Bar & Grill, LP Street Food and Moco.

Bricks, at 320 Second Ave. SE, saw sine additional traffic from the tournament, Zehr and fellow co-owner Tim Kindl said, although customers didn’t stay out as late as they usually do during the tournament.

“We had decent little lunch crowds,” Kindl said. “It was fine. It wasn’t anything that was super overwhelming.”

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Springman, from the Map Room, 416 Third St. SE, said Monday and Wednesday didn’t bring any more customers than usual. On Tuesday, her staff estimated the restaurant filled four tables it otherwise wouldn’t fill. Only one large group came in this year, she said.

“I wonder if the teams had some strict restrictions about what they’re supposed to be doing?” Springman said.

In one case, she said, the tournament kept a customer away.

“He said, ‘Oh, I avoided downtown because I thought there might be a lot of traffic from state volleyball,’ ” Springman said. “Which I thought was so funny because there’s like nobody working downtown, so there’s no traffic downtown.”

Ryan Manka, manager of Bari Italian, 450 First St. SW, said the restaurant geared up for a potential influx of customers that never came.

He said other downtown restaurateurs also reported underwhelming business from the volleyball players and spectators. Although they typically look forward to the people stopping by throughout the week, \ “obviously, COVID kind of had its own plans this year for it,” Manka said.

“Everybody in the world right now is getting used to a new normal at the moment and a different book is being written each day,” he added. “We’re working from a book that’s never been written, and so, right now, we’re thankful for the customers that we do have.”

While the tournament was underway at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse, the number of coronavirus cases in Iowa surged.

On the last day of the tournament, the state reported a record 4,706 new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period. The state’s seven-day rolling average also broke records every day of the tournament.

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The disappointing week for restaurants came as they continue to grapple with declining revenues because of the coronavirus and the Aug. 10 derecho.

“It’s definitely been a difficult year,” Springman said.

Springman noticed an uptick in customers over the weekend because of the unseasonably warm weather, “but that’s not going to last much longer.”

If downtown activity doesn’t return to pre-pandemic levels ­— whether that be from events like the volleyball tournament or simply people working downtown — restaurant owners fear the consequences.

“The traffic needs to come back,” Zehr said. “Otherwise, it could turn into a sad sight.”

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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