Brian Holmes hasn’t yet hung the “Green Lakes Lanes” sign outside his Fayetteville business since he bought and remodeled the place in November.
The 12 lanes aren’t open anyway.
Holmes, like most other bowling center owners locally, is devoting his staff and facilities to the only source of revenue left: food and drink. He’s focused on marketing burgers and ice cream to passersby, many of them headed to or from the nearby state park.
He’s added online ordering, and challenged his cooks to perfect a chicken riggies recipe. Customers stop by for a quick bite, frosty beverage or frozen treat.
The lanes remain quiet.
“We’re creating a different kind of market here,” Holmes said.
Since March, Holmes and his peers have been doing their best to make the most of their situation during the pandemic.
Bowling alleys are one of the last remaining blacklisted business activities in New York state. Unlucky for Holmes, pool halls are also part of this exclusive group — and he owns one of those, too: Brick House Billiards in North Syracuse.
Bowlers and pool sharks have had to watch as tennis courts, batting cages, swimming pools and even shopping malls reopen.
Months ago, all of these activities and businesses were singled out for closure by state officials as the coronavirus spread across New York. Recreation was supposed to rebound during “phase four,” but as the process of reopening unfolded, it became clear that the phases were riddled with caveats.
There’s been no further word on bowling.
Bowlers and the mostly small, mom-and-pop-operated centers who serve them say they have been left in the dark about when they might be able to get back in business.
Some centers have submitted reopening plans to the state. Many thought they’d get a chance to open in June, then July, said Deb Kratz, manager of the CNY chapter of the U.S. Bowling Congress Association.
Now, in August, they’ve been given no guidance, no date to look forward to. Unlike malls, they haven’t been told any reasons for the hold-up either, whether it’s ventilation, mask wearing or some other concern.
“We didn’t even hear — nothing — that’s what frustrates everybody,” Kratz said. “If we need to get those filters, let us know. Give us a heads up ahead of time.”
Since March, Kratz said, she’s written too many letters and emails to state and local officials to count. As the local bowling group manager, she’s felt pressure to do something, but has ended up feeling her hands are tied.
“I can only try to fight for the information, keep making phone calls, until we get an answer,” she said.
Meanwhile, she worries about the businesses that are suffering (all but one of the local centers are fully locally owned), and the greater bowling community. She notes bowling is a family sport, a great activity for children and many people with disabilities, and fundraisers for local non-profits are a near-constant part of the industry.
Kratz and many others also believe bowling is an activity that can easily be done safely during the pandemic.
A petition asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow bowling centers to reopen has gathered more than 7,600 signatures across the state. Signatories and organizers lament the toll the shutdown has taken on workers and businesses. They also argue there’s a way for bowling to resume safely. They note the facilities are clean, large enough for social distancing, and they are ready to follow guidelines, if only there were some.
Tricia Zinter, general manager of Flamingo Bowl in Liverpool, said she’s been in talks with other local businesses about how to draw attention to how much bowling alleys are suffering financially.
Flamingo has invested in safety equipment, relying on guidelines for other businesses as a blueprint. Zinter wonders how bowling could be any less safe than many allowable activities, such as going to a grocery store, for example.
“We have the plexiglass up, we have the markings on the ground,” Zinter said. “We’ve really gone through so many measures to make sure our customers are safe. We would only want to open if we felt we could ensure everyone is safe.”
The sprawling space at Flamingo, which has 40 lanes, is now equipped with plexiglass shields at any “interaction point” where customers would have to talk to staff members, Zinter said.
They’ve added eight sanitation stations. They’ve blocked off a room where “house” balls for anyone who doesn’t bring their own will be kept. The room will be staffed, and balls will be sanitized before and after each use.
Flamingo plans to require reservations, so that customers are never waiting around or forming lines. That would also allow staff to space out groups and ensure social distancing is observed.
“For any open bowling we would definitely limit it to four people per lane and do every other lane. For us, that’s no more than 80 people in the building. We’re fire-coded for 506 people,” Zinter said. “We are ready to take extreme precautions.”
Zinter, in consultation with the family that owns Flamingo, has decided not to open just for food and drink.
“For us, it just didn’t make sense to open for the food and bar part without having bowling,” she said.
She checks in regularly with her staff, many of whom have been able to find other jobs, or were working multiple jobs before the pandemic. She is constantly assessing finances and possible steps with the owner.
“It’s scary for all of us,” she said. “Him and I talk every single day. What is the next step? What are we going to do? How are we going to get through this?”
Local bowling association manager Kratz notes bowling was already on the decline in the Northeast. Two local centers closed in recent years. She worries how many more will be lost to the pandemic, how many active bowlers will lose interest.
Holmes, at Green Lakes Lanes, bucked the trend, taking a leap by buying the center in Fayetteville after the previous owner died unexpectedly.
Now, Holmes has three businesses that nowadays aren’t bringing enough money to cover costs. Besides the bowling alley and Brick House Billiards, he owns Brian’s One Day Dry Cleaners in Manlius. None of three businesses are as profitable as they need to be right now to survive, Holmes said.
Even the dry cleaning business, deemed “essential” and allowed to remain open throughout the health crisis, is drawing about half the business it typically does. Holmes’ family kicks in labor to keep that business going.
The pool hall, in particular, is strained. As a restaurant and bar, it struggles to compete with the many establishments along Route 11 where it’s located. Holmes is keeping the staff small to reduce costs, and sees a lot of familiar faces stop in, pool sharks who want to support him and keep him open.
Holmes said he is “constantly feeding money” into the businesses out of his own pocket. It’s a financial — and even emotional — burden that has been taking a toll on the small business owner for months now.
That’s part of why he’s chosen to invest in the food service aspects of his businesses for now.
“Everything I do I’ve got to be proud of,” he said. “This half-open mentality, it’s going to crush me. I’m not used to being in survival mode. I’m always trying to move and grow,” he said.
He hasn’t bothered too much with shields or safety protocols for the lanes at Green Lakes or the pool tables at Brick House. Why spend money on those things when the state hasn’t given any signal he’ll be able to resume those activities? No one knows exactly what the requirements will be.
So while he’s trying to stay focused on the parts of his business he can control, he too hopes the state will communicate something soon to bowling alleys.
“Give us something we can go after,” he said.
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