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May 31, 2020 - 1:29pm

Bowling industry reeling from mid-March shutdown, facing an uncertain future

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt devastating blows to businesses of all types and sizes, but not many have been hit harder than the bowling industry.

The 2019-20 bowling season was cut short when the virus hit in mid-March, forcing leagues to cancel their seasons with four to eight weeks remaining.

As the crisis continued, tournaments at the national, state and local levels were cancelled – keeping bowlers on the sidelines and preventing organizations and center proprietors from generating millions of dollars in budgeted revenue.

With June a day away, bowling centers remain closed in most states. In New York, bowling has been lumped together with other forms of entertainment into Phase Four of the state’s reopening plan and it likely will be at least another month before centers are allowed to open their doors.

Proprietors, reeling from end-of-season losses, also have seen their spring and summer league programs washed away. They are uncertain about the start of the 2020-21 season in late August and early September, and wonder what league bowling will look like going forward.

“Bowling is not going to be the same for a while,” said Jack Moran, proprietor of Roseland Family Fun Center in Canandaigua, a facility that offers 34 traditional bowling lanes as well as eight VIP lanes, café, sports bar, and an arcade with laser tag and bumper cars.

Social distancing parameters – requirements that people stay at least six feet away from each other – have prompted the United States Bowling Congress to temporarily waive playing rules stating that two lanes must be used for competition and that bowlers must alternate lanes.

The USBC also waived the requirement that both lanes must be used for a bowler to be eligible for awards and average recognition.

What that means is, for league play, a team could bowl the entire game on lane one, for example, and its opposing team, could bowl its entire game on lane three.

Additionally, bowlers will be allowed to use isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) to clean their bowling balls during competition – a change from the current rule that states that no cleaners can be used during competition.

Although it is yet to be seen whether those new rules will be put into play, proprietors hoping to run summer leagues after reopening may have no alternatives.

“What are we going to do for six to eight weeks of summer leagues? We’re better off trying to run a special promotion to get people in the doors again, so that they feel safe,” said Moran, a past president of the NYS Bowling Proprietors Association. “We’re not even sure if people coming back in September are going to feel safe.”

Randy Hanks, proprietor of the 18-lane Oak Orchard Bowl in Albion, said he is planning to separate customers by around 15 feet for open bowling.

“If a family’s is using a pair (of lanes) and they’re on lanes one and two, the next one used will be lane five – 15 to 20 feet away,” he said. “Plus, I’m going to have them prepay, leave the (house) balls and shoes on the ball return, and we’ll sanitize them after everybody is done.”

The NYS BPA already has drafted a long list of health- and safety-related protocols that proprietors will use to ensure a safe environment. Details can be found in the article below.

Hanks said the restaurant portion of his business has been open for take-out only, but revenue pales in comparison to normal operation.

“We lost four summer league, including our adult-junior league that would have ended the day we maybe can open up – June 26th,” Hanks said. “I don’t even want to look to see how much I lost since March 15 compared to the same time the last two years.”

Moran said his staff has been working hard to implement the protocols – markings on the floor, plexiglass shields, acquiring digital thermometers to check everyone’s temperature coming into one specified entrance, and so on.

“From what we’re being told, we will be allowed to open at 50 percent of our occupancy,” he said. “In my case, it equates to about 120 people in my center.”

He said he has talked to colleagues in other states to get a pulse on the situation.

“Talking to my friends in Ohio and Florida – they have been able to open up but it’s limited hours and every other lane for social distancing,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to look at what the league structure will be like in September – and it’s not looking good if this thing goes six months.”

Mike Sputore, manager of Mancuso Bowling Center in Batavia, said he is looking to reopen the 24-lane center in mid- to late-August with all the protocols in place.

Echoing the concerns of the whole industry, he said time will tell on how to proceed.

“There are just too many uncertainties at this time,” he said. “How do we run the leagues? Do we use just one lane? How much time will it take to bowl? Will more than one league be able to bowl at a time? I just hope people don’t give up league bowling.”

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