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COVID-19 silences scene in Miami before the College Football Playoff national championships

  • Cyclists ride past a 2021 display promoting the College Football Playoff championship, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Fla. Alabama and Ohio State will play in the championship NCAA college football game Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

  • Fans pose with the College Football Playoff championship trophy, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Fla. Alabama and Ohio State will play in the championship NCAA college football game Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

  • CORRECTS YEAR TO 2021 INSTEAD OF 2020 - Football fans shop for souvenirs, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. Ohio State, and Alabama will play the College Football Playoff National Championship game in Miami Gardens on Monday night. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2021 4:47:47 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 4:47:24 PM

MIAMI — It’s 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, and I grab a seat in the empty row of chairs at the bar of Maxine’s Bistro and Bar. I’m one of just three people sitting inside the restaurant; about 20 feet away sit a couple grabbing a late lunch.

A few waiters mill around, waiting for customers and calculating their recent tips. The bartender, Chris Vera, works on refilling a bottle of Triple Sec as the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears play in the background.

Maxine’s sits on Collins Avenue in the heart of South Beach, less than 20 miles from the site of Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in nearby Miami Gardens, Fla.

A handful of Ohio State and Alabama fans have passed through Maxine’s, says restaurant manager Luis Montenegro. Yet it’s not at all comparable to what they saw last year when Miami hosted Super Bowl LIV.

“We know it doesn’t get bigger than Alabama and Ohio State,” says Montenegro, who has been working at Maxine’s for nearly 10 years. “They bring fans wherever they go. But I can tell you, not even close to what I’ve seen before. If things were normal right now, hell, I wouldn’t be talking to you.

“I can tell you from the Thursday before the game, you already know it’s going to be a madhouse (in years past). It’s been way different.”

I’m down here because my cousin is Ryan Day, the second-year coach of the Buckeyes. A Manchester Central High grad and former New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year, he went on to play quarterback at the University of New Hampshire. Some Dartmouth College football fans might remember his name from his touchdown pass with 4 seconds remaining on Sept. 22, 2001, that gave the Wildcats a 42-38 victory over the Big Green in Hanover.

I flew down from Boston on Friday and will quarantine for 10 days upon my arrival back to my apartment in Lebanon. And I won’t reenter public spaces until I have tested negative for COVID-19.

The championship game vibe hasn’t been felt throughout Miami because of COVID-19. Over 1.4 million total cases have been confirmed in the state of Florida since the start of the pandemic, with 65,595 hospitalizations and 22,912 deaths.

Only 16,000 fans are being allowed into a stadium that sits 65,326. The economic impact also will look drastically different than last year’s Super Bowl, which Miami hosted and was predicted to have an economic-impact estimate north of $500 million.

Around Miami, a few banners with the team logos hang from light poles, and a couple cars drive around decked out with posters stating Dos Equis is the official beer partner of the College Football Playoff. Not much else points to the big game.

The pandemic shut down Maxine’s for close to five months, just like many other restaurants in the area. Montenegro said he was forced to lay off his entire staff during the period of time the restaurant closed.

But lately, the business has been getting stronger. The bistro saw its best month of profit since the start of the pandemic in December because a handful of tourists are still flocking south to evade the cold weather, and Florida doesn’t have any travel restrictions in place.

A few more waiters and bartenders were to be working at Maxine’s on Monday, but Montenegro didn’t expect a post-game crowd since establishments in Miami have to close by midnight; kickoff wasn’t until 8 p.m.

“If I had to put a percent out of 100 how this compares to a normal big event in Miami, I would say I’ve seen 25% from what we usually see,” he said. “And I think I’m going above.”

Not everybody has been so lucky with their profits lately. Down the street from Maxine’s sits Surf Style Miami, a tourist-centric shop that sells Miami-themed trinkets and T-shirts. Dada Fleu began working at the store in February, right before the pandemic and was walking around folding shirts on Sunday.

The shop has two large rooms packed with clothing, and Fleu said usually it would have more than 75 people in it at a time walking over before or after their day at the beach. On Sunday, Fleu and I were two of the five people in the store.

“It’s been really quiet. Tourists aren’t coming in anymore,” she tells me. “I haven’t seen any more customers come in because of the game; I didn’t even know it was going on. Nobody is in here anymore. ”

Back at Maxine’s, Montenegro has gone back to his duties as manager, and I’m left to talk with Vera, the bartender. He was laid off when the restaurant was first shut down and collected unemployment, waiting to get the call back to work. He also had COVID-19 last month and was in quarantine for nearly two weeks.

Vera isn’t an avid football fan but had been told about the game a few days prior because extra staffing is being put in place for the night of the game.

“I don’t care if Alabama or Ohio State wins,” he says. “But it would be nice if we could get some more people in here because of the game. I could get some more tips.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.




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