By Brendan O'Brien
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A passerby occasionally stops on the empty plaza to take a selfie under the "Wrigley Field Home Of Chicago Cubs" marquee or pause at the ballpark's locked gates for a glimpse at its fabled ivy and brick outfield wall.
The throngs of Cubs fans who pour out of the neighborhood bars and scurry inside the 106-year-old Wrigley Field before every home game are missing along with the palpable excitement that fills the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago's North Side at least 81 times a season.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought one of Chicago's signature spots to a near standstill, devastating its businesses and disheartening die-hard Cubs fans who live steps from the park known as "The Friendly Confines."
"It's been a mixture of fear and hope," said Emily Young, a life-long fan and owner of two 7-Eleven franchises in Wrigleyville. "We are all scared. We don't ... know what tomorrow is going to look like and what baseball's going to bring."
The absence of baseball, which normally starts around early April, is almost too much to bear for Cubs fans, who are renowned for their patience, having waited 108 years for their club to win the World Series in 2016.
"It's real sad," said Richard Lind, 34, standing outside the park wearing a Cubs hat, an emblem of America's "national pastime."
"There is a definite void, especially when you need a distraction most," the bartender said.
The Cubs have postponed 30 of the 81 games scheduled to be played in 2020 at the 41,000-seat Wrigley Field
Major League Baseball is negotiating with its players association over a proposal for a modified season that could begin in July.
MISSING THE BURGERS AND HOT DOGS
Baseball's hiatus has evaporated the $870 million spent by fans annually inside and outside Wrigley, a good portion of which is revenue earned by Wrigleyville business owners, according to the Cubs.
The lack of business forced Harry Sdralis, owner of Wrigleyville Dogs stand near Wrigley, to reduce staff hours and forgo a paycheck.
"You're talking about massive losses right now. Massive," he said. "Our family business will continue because we are a strong family, strong community and strong city."
The lights are off and barstools turned upside down inside taverns and restaurants around the park. Signs on the doors thank customers and promise an eventual reopening.
Whether all 30 of MLB's stadiums will be available to host games is uncertain. Even if baseball resumes, it is likely that attendance will be limited or not allowed at all, a nightmarish prospect for Wrigleyville.
"How will the bars be able to pay their bills?" said Pete Mazzone, 37, who has worked at various Wrigleyville establishments. "My guess is that at least 30% of the bars and businesses will close."
Some establishments offer carry-out food, but that is a far cry from the electric atmosphere that consumes the neighborhood on the morning of an afternoon game, which often starts at 1:20 p.m.
"The smell of the burgers, hot dogs and peanuts ... we would be rocking and rolling by noon," Murphy's Bleachers manager Pat Curth said outside his bar facing Wrigley's bleacher gates.
From the singing of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" that rings across Wrigleyville during the seventh-inning stretch, to the blue "W" flag waving high above the park after a victory, the team's allure draws the most fervent fans to live nearby.
Even if fans are banned from the park, "people will line the streets, just listening for the crack of a bat" said local resident Matt Patterson, 24.
Whatever the future holds, he said Wrigleyville will "be happier with baseball."
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago Editing by Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis)