James Madison University’s announcement Aug. 10 that it would suspend all fall sports was typical of the bad news that 2020 continues to bring for Tim O’Neill, the founder and part owner of city sports bar and restaurant O’Neill’s Grill, and others in the hospitality industry.
“We’re kind of in the phase that we’re doing the best we can and if we take another body blow, we take another body blow,” he said.
O’Neill said the news must be especially gut-wrenching for the athletes, coaches and fans.
“First and foremost, I think it’s sad and it’s a shame for all these kids that are practicing with lifelong dreams in the fall sports,” said the former high school and college athlete. “Hopefully, the country, at some point, will move forward with the COVID-19 [pandemic], but some of these kids, they can’t get their time back.”
O’Neill said for him it was about perspective — realizing that many people are suffering, many reeling from the deaths of loved ones, and the pain to the restaurants has been around since March.
“Even if [JMU] played, we’re at 50% capacity, so there’s only so many people who can come in the doors anyway,” O’Neill said.
Roughly 25,000 people, many from out of the area, attend JMU home football games, and the crowd spends money at area stores, restaurants, hotels and bars before and after games, said Kevin Warner, the assistant athletic director for communications at JMU.
“We are very much sensitive to how this is just one more thing that’s hitting everyone,” Warner said.
He said the school has a goal of having a safe spring season for fall sports teams.
Warner added that even if fall sports had gone ahead, there would still be an intense impact on the area’s economy because game crowds are limited to 1,000 — 4% of the usual crowd for a game at Bridgeforth Stadium.
“We might actually have bigger crowds in the spring, for example,” Warner said.
JMU realizes the “integral part” it plays in both the local economy and culture, according to Warner.
“Certainly athletics are a piece of that, and most prominently is football,” Warner said.
Brian Shull, the economic development director for Harrisonburg, agreed with Warner that the university and Harrisonburg are closely intertwined.
“The economic impact of those weekend events are huge, but the cultural attachment is huge too,” Shull said.
Businesses “were holding out hope that maybe the larger sports events, especially football, could give them a [boost] but these bad news stories continue to roll in,” he said.
O’Neill said he has been mentally prepared for more bad business tidings since the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the Valley in March.
“I think it’s horrible for the students, athletes and fans,” O’Neill said. “But it’s “not a huge impact on business ‘cause COVID-19 has already done about as much damage as it can do unless the country locks down again.”