Riding the COVID Roller Coaster in Peoria

Remember when each season brought a different array of events to follow in central Illinois? Explore Peoria remembers.

But that was before the pandemic. Now in the spring of 2021, as vaccinations spread across the community, there are signs of hope.

Yet this month (April) saw the coronavirus return with a vengeance. The Peoria area was labeled a national epicenter for COVID-19 by Dr. Doug Kasper, interim section head of infectious disease at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, who urged continued caution by area residents on WMBD, a Peoria radio station.

The Peoria area has become accustomed to the stop-and-go, roller-coaster ride that’s become the norm in the era of the coronavirus.

It’s been more than a year that restrictions have been put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. Work and school routines have been altered. The elimination of crowds and the closing of many places of business has become a routine.

Apparently, we’re not out of the woods yet. Despite these problems, however, the area’s sports light is flickering back on.

Consider the substitute teacher from Morton who’s trying to bring arena football back to central Illinois in the middle of a pandemic.

The Central Illinois Royals play the Kurse from Kentucky this Saturday (April 24) at the Morton Park District Indoor Sports Facility (located at 324 S. Detroit Ave. in Morton). For more information, visit http://royalsfootball.com

“We’ve worked on setting up arena football for a couple of years but COVID has thrown a curve ball into it,” said the manager of the team who played football at Eureka College.

In the newly-formed division, the Royals square off against teams like the Great Lakes Phoenix, St. Louis Bandits and Indianapolis Enforcers.

“We’ve had eight games on the schedule so far. After Saturday’s game we’ve got a home game at the end of May and another in early June,” he said.

With capacity limited to only a few hundred people at the Morton facility (when restrictions are not in effect), the Royals have sought to stream games to allow for more exposure. “We’re just trying to get things off the ground this year,” said the manager, who also serves as a volunteer fireman when not organizing football games.

He said he hopes to recreate the excitement of arena football in the area that was enjoyed by the Peoria Pirates, who played at the Peoria Civic Center from 1999 to 2009.

Also looking to stir some excitement is Jason Mott, general manager of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We’re playing catch-up,” said Mott, referring to the fact that the team had to cancel its 2020 season in Peoria.

“We just hope we’re moving forward—not backward. We’re definitely excited to bring pro baseball back here,” he said.

“Everything is subject to change. We’ll adjust as we go. We’re expecting to be able to accommodate 25 percent capacity when we open. That’s about 1,250 people in the bowl,” said Mott.

Look for some changes to accommodate public safety, he said. “We encourage people to get tickets early. We’re trying to eliminate lines,” said Mott.

“We can’t do things on the field with the fans we used to do. We’re also working on some new food options. People can order online and pick it up at the stand (inside the park) or have it delivered to their seats,” he said.

The impact of the pandemic varies across the league, said Mott, noting that teams like the Quad Cities Bandits are able to go “wide open” when it comes to crowds at their home park in Davenport, Iowa.

Another area team looking to get back on track in 2021 is the Peoria Rivermen ice hockey team that kicks off its 40th season at the Peoria Civic Center in October.

“I would hope that by the end of October we’d be able to put enough people in the PCC to cover our annual operations budget of $1.7 million,” said Bart Rogers, the Rivermen owner and CEO.

Forced to cancel last year’s season, the Rivermen look to take advantage of pent-up demand, he said. “We have lots of good things planned. Three-quarters of our fans are casual fans who might come out once or twice a year. We want to draw them back,” said Rogers.

A new addition to this year’s schedule involve games with a new team in the league, the Vermilion County Bobcats out of Danville, he said.

“Not only will playing in Danville save traveling costs but it gives Rivermen fans around the state the chance to see more hockey,” said Rogers.

Part of the Rivermen organization since 1992, Rogers credited Bruce Saurs, the late former owner, with making the commitment responsible for the team’s success and longevity.

With promotions to honor the team’s 40th year already in the works, Rogers is proud of what the Rivermen have accomplished in Peoria. “We have the seventh longest streak for a pro hockey franchise in the country outside of the National Hockey League,” he said.

Meanwhile the Peoria Civic Center is hoping conditions improve enough to allow for activities before Rivermen games return in late October.

Rik Edgar, the Peoria Civic Center’s general manager, hopes to bring the arena back to life as soon as possible. “We should know more in the next 30 to 45 days,” he said in an email.

It was recently announced that the Center’s Carver Arena will host the Illinois Regional Basketball Tournament (TBT) from July 24 to 28. Among the 16 teams participating will be alumni squads from the University of Illinois and Bradley University.

Other area openings are also on the horizon. After being closed all of last year, the Wheels O’ Time Museum (located at 1710 W. Woodside Drive in Dunlap) plans to open on Saturday, May 1 while the Peoria Riverfront Museum, already holding events, is gearing up for the opening of a national exhibit, “T-Rex—the Ultimate Predator” on May 29.