By Natasha Budhai

Over the clacking of cue balls and sizzling of deep-fried mozzarella sticks, Break & Play Billiards and Bar is enjoying a busy night. Having the full complement of staff on the job, making sure they attend to all their customers is a priority on this crowded, cheerful night at the bar.

On Jan. 20, Premier Doug Ford announced the province’s three-step reopening plan, set to take place on Jan. 31. With the indoor capacity limit now lifted, many indoor establishments have opened back up to the public, including billiards and bars.

Break & Play Billiards and Bar is a pool establishment based in Brampton. Arpan Thapaliya, the owner of Break & Play, is excited to be back in business in hopes that the lockdown pattern doesn’t continue.

Break & Play had first opened in Oct. 2019, shortly before the pandemic began. Business was thriving and the bar’s popularity began to rise as each month was generating good income. However, with the recent Omicron variant, there’s been worries about whether or not there will be another lockdown.

“Every time we build, it goes back down. Every time we get shut down, business goes back down again,” says Thapaliya. “It’s scary, not knowing what could happen with possible future lockdowns. But overall, we’re still surviving, taking it day-by-day.”

“Being located at the corner of Steeles and Hurontario is a great location but does result in higher rent.” According to Thapaliya, rent is approximately $10 000 a month for the venue. “We lost over $10 000 if you include our regular bills and inventory, which is more than the average person’s income in a month.”

According to a document released by the province in 2020, in four COVID-19 hot spots (where indoor dining was banned) the proportion of outbreaks linked to restaurants and bars between Aug. 1 and Oct. 24 ranged from 3.2 to 27.14 per cent. The decline in travel, along with consumers’ hesitation to dine indoors and changing government restrictions have increased uncertainty for food services and drinking places. But for now, at least, Break & Play is surviving.

It’s 11:15 p.m. on a Saturday night. The bar is at its busiest with customers rushing inside from the wet snow, in desperate need of a drink. Bartender Anna Bazngeya is on the case, front and centre ready to greet locals with a smile and start their night with the perfect drink. She’s soon at work, an order of two dirty martinis with a side of honey roasted chicken wings. “We’re just trying to have a community of people who can come in and enjoy themselves,” says Bazngeya. After forgetting the olives the last time, she’s sure not to make that mistake again.

“I’ve been working here since Oct. 2021, so I’m still fairly new to the family,” says Bazngeya. “When I started working the second week of our re-opening, I just jumped right back in! It was great to see all the regulars catching up with each other.”

Thapaliya is out front, making drinks and engaging with regular and pool shark Tim Carrigan. With mocking laughter and drunk banter, Thapaliya challenges Carrigan to a game, making fun of his skills. With a growing smirk on his face, Carrigan accepts. As both are prepping a table, he asks Bazngeya for a glass of Heineken. “I’ve been playing pool for 30 years. I’m one of the better pool players here,” says Carrigan as he laughs. As Bazngeya returns with his order, Thapaliya is in position, ready to break.

“It’s never a fun time when you’re missing out on your favourite places. I’ve missed the bar, especially since I didn’t get to go to celebrate New Year’s Eve,” says Carrigan. “It’s great to be back though, it’s as if I’ve never left.” As Carrigan takes a sip of his beer, he continues to add that the bar “is [his] second home.”

Carrigan and Thapaliya are back and forth, attracting the attention of the whole bar. Loud cheers and applause emerge from all around. Everybody watching is excited and choosing sides. Heard from the back is Julia Robbin, a recent newcomer and a beginner at pool. “I really enjoy the atmosphere of everyone having a good time,” says Robbin.

Robbin said that she attends more now than before because “who knows how long everything will stay open for, we may as well take advantage of going out now.” She continues to talk about the joy she has when she goes to the bar. “Just knowing that at some point in the night I’d have made a new friend whom I can drink with is what I look most forward to.”

Through the chatter of their customers and the clinking from the cheers of margarita glasses, the bar still has its worries about what the future has in store. Both Thapaliya and Bazngeya are confident that Break & Play will thrive, hoping for the end of lockdowns, but prepared just in case.

When asked about the bar’s potential to survive another lockdown, Bazngeya was confident that they would. Even after some time, all the regulars were back and new faces too. “We’ve built a strong community here, so I think we’d be able to bounce back. We’re even thinking of adding more pool tables to the space!”

“It all comes down to when the lockdown could happen and if the government is there to provide support,” adds Thapaliya. Break & Play were denied help at the time as they were a new business and weren’t open for more than a year. So if they have to undergo another lockdown, Thapaliya hopes to have more support in doing so. “That aside, I’m pretty confident in the future of Break & Play.”

With his turn up next, Carrigan chalks his stick. Thapaliya has landed his final solid, so the pressure is on. The crowd grows silent as he lowers himself to the table, at eye-level line. With one deep breath, he pulls back his stick to hit the ball, taking the shot. The cue ball strikes the 8-ball, rolling slowly. As the 8-ball lands in the corner pocket, the crowd goes wild.