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Indy restaurant closures grow as business owners await NCAA tournament announcement

INDIANAPOLIS– Israel Vazquez was hauling perishable goods out the back door of El Toro at Vermont and Illinois Streets and loading them into the bed of a pickup truck for redistribution to his other suburban restaurants.

A sign on the door indicated El Toro was closed at least until the business gets better for downtown restaurants.

“This is the third time that I close this business, temporary close,” said Vazquez, who remodeled the former Acapulco Joe’s a year ago and reopened it just in time to be rocked by the twin 2020 financial disasters of the pandemic shutdown and the spring riots. “We know we have a great business and we have an amazing downtown but we don’t know what’s going on. There’s nobody down here.”

With only one in five downtown workers returning to the office, the bottom falling out of the convention, sports and visitor industries and public health emergencies curbing hospitality options, dozens of restaurants, bars and small food providers in Mile Square have called it quits.

“On any given day pre-COVID, there were 250 places to eat, dine, go to have a drink, grab coffee downtown,” said Bob Schultz, Vice President of Downtown Indy Inc. “We see anywhere from 35-40 of those have shut down, a few more temporarily.”

Even though it’s located several miles north of downtown, SoBro mainstay Moe & Johnny’s announced Monday it was also shutting down temporarily due to slumping business.

“We are working with the Downtown Recovery Committee right now and some of our downtown restaurants to do a cooperative campaign to encourage that patronage during the months of January and February especially, kind of our Back Downtown Phase II campaign,” said Schultz, who’s hoping to encourage not only downtown residents but also workers who have stopped coming to the office to return to the city’s core for an occasional takeout meal in order to keep those restaurants afloat. “We are meeting every week now to talk about what restaurants are at risk of going under or temporarily closing, how can we find some specific laser-focused efforts to save those, how can we demonstrate to the NCAA we have this community that is eager to host them and that we’ll be ready to do so?”

The NCAA announced last week it was negotiating with state and local health officials as well as Indy Sports Corp. on plans to bring the entire men's basketball tournament to Indianapolis next March.

“It is a logistical challenge to have essentially 68 teams come to Indianapolis and play in venues about the city,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “We in downtown are ready to invite all of these teams in. I don’t know exactly what the logistics will be in terms of who collaterally will be able to watch the games. We’re very hopeful that at least the families of the players will be allowed in the game and those are decisions that the NCAA, the Marion County Department of Public Health, and the Indiana State Board of Health will be making over the next few weeks.”

With so many restaurants, bars and shops shuttered for good, Hogsett said the city is counting on Congress to pass a second CARES Act financial aid package to provide funding for those struggling businesses

“We’re doing what we can, using the CARES money, the $168 million that we were given in March,” said the mayor. “We need the United States Congress to step up and issue another CARES Act allocation not only for the city of Indianapolis but the state of Indiana, and if they do, we will continue to provide relief temporarily for those businesses, those hospitality industries, those restaurants and the like to keep them open.”

Regarding preparations for the COVID-19 related challenges of holding the Men's Tournament in Indianapolis in March, CBS4 was told, “The Marion County Public Health Department, the City of Indianapolis and the NCAA are in early discussions related to the NCAA bid to bring the tournament here to Indianapolis. At this time, the logistics, including testing, have not been finalized,” according to the MCPHD statement.

Hogsett said if state and local health authorities are successful in developing a pandemic protocol to permit tournament play in Indianapolis at the end of the anticipated college basketball season, other cities in Indiana could benefit from the planning done here.

“The tournament will not only be here in Indianapolis, but there’s a tentative plan to have the Division II tournament in Evansville and the Division III tournament in its entirety perhaps in Fort Wayne , so, the entire state of Indiana is in this all together and we’re working very closely together.”

The NCAA had previously announced all three of its Men's Tournaments would be held in Indiana in 2021.

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