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  • Writer's pictureRich Kenny

Bowling centers rolling again after pandemic closures

By Steve Junga / For The Blade

Bowling centers in the Toledo area have begun to reopen after being ordered closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For an already struggling sporting industry that had fallen far from its peak participation numbers some 40 years ago, the shutdown in the final eight weeks of its traditional fall-winter season was another financial blow.

In Ohio, bowling centers were permitted to reopen on May 26, and at least two of the area’s 11 establishments — the New Glass Bowl Lanes in North Toledo and Penny Jo’s Eastern Lanes in Northwood — jumped on board immediately. Bowlero, in West Toledo, followed suit on May 28.

“It’s been overwhelmingly great,” said Bowlero general manager Tommy Parker of the restart. “There’s been a lot people coming out. We’ve moved a lot of our tables so we can keep that six-foot social distancing, so that really helps.

“The first weekend we were only able to use every other lane. Now, since we’ve moved all the tables, we’re able to use every lane.”

Parker has witnessed a quick shift in comfort level.

“Basically, people aren’t as afraid as I thought they’d be,” he said. “The first night, everybody had masks on. Now, it seems like very few are wearing masks, which is totally up to them.

“Knock on wood, I’m hoping we’re on the downward trend. I don’t think there’s a threat here with all the things we’re doing to sanitize. We’ve paid a ton of money for hand wipes and sanitizing solutions.”

For some establishments, the shutdown put the survival of the business in jeopardy.

“We’re going to need more business to survive,” Eastern Lanes proprietor Penny Lybarger said. “If we don’t get a lot of the leagues back [in fall], plus some other stuff, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to make it.

“If we shut down again, I doubt that we will reopen. This has to work.

“The survival of many businesses is going to depend on the economy turning around and people getting out and getting back to the regular lives.”

The area’s biggest bowling center, Southwyck Lanes, which as 64 lanes at its South Toledo location, will reopen on Wednesday. Timbers Lanes in nearby Maumee will get rolling on Thursday.

“It’s been a real roller-coaster,” said longtime Southwyck Lanes owner Sherry Gratop. “It’s been depressing, it’s been scary, and it’s been up and down.

There was a time when I thought, ‘Maybe this is going to be the end. We just don’t know.’ The fear of the unknown was pretty heavy in the beginning.”

Gratop maintains a positive mindset.

“I’ve got a good feeling,” she said. “We were very fortunate to get a good [team registration] turnout for the BCSN league, and we’re starting to get some of the kids back. That was a concern.

“I feel pretty optimistic that this is going to pass, and hopefully everything will come back to like the way it was, and maybe even better.”

Other establishments are waiting a bit longer, because of planned upgrades, or to take a wait-and-see approach before diving back in.

Miracle Lanes in West Toledo, which had planned to close to while installing some new equipment in July, started that project early after being shut down in March. It is now scheduled to reopen July 6.

Interstate Lanes in Rossford is expected to restart within two weeks, although no official date has been announced.

Jugs Bowling Center in West Toledo will resume operations on Aug 1, about a month before fall leagues begin their new seasons.

The Toledo Sports Center in East Toledo has reopened to conclude one fall league, but will reportedly close again before fully reopening before the new fall season.

Each bowling center is required to strictly follow social-distancing requirements, which for most required some redesign to their seating arrangements.

Hand-sanitizer stations, access to disinfecting wipes, mandatory masks and temperature checks for employees, and the installation of plexiglass barriers are among the many alterations the centers were required to make in order to meet Ohio Department of Health guidelines.

North of the border in Michigan, Forest View Lanes reopened the bar and restaurant portion of its business on Sunday, but is not yet permitted to allow bowling because of state restrictions.

“My greatest concern is making sure people do what we ask them to do,” Gratop said. “I don’t want people not adhering to the six-foot distancing, and then having an issue. We hope that everybody understands what we’re up against, and that everybody works together.”

For now, just getting back to business is a plus for the centers.

“It’s been a crazy three months, and we’ve finally got light at the end of the tunnel,” Parker said. “Bowlers and non-bowlers are excited. It’s nice to be able to actually see people here again. It’s been an awesome response so far.

“We had a big tournament a week ago Sunday that drew 170 people here, mainly from Michigan. It’s great that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s an awesome feeling to see that.”

Monitoring will be essential.

“It’s highly important now that everybody keeps staying safe and sanitizing and observing and following the rules of the federal government and all the individual states,” said Miracle Lanes owner Jim Nyhan. “It’s mandatory that we do that.

Speaking for the entire bowling industry, the Bowling Proprietors Association of America is taking this very seriously.

“We have weekly calls and [coronavirus] training and classes for maintaining a safe work environment for our employees, and safe environment for our guests,” Nyham said.

Because the summer is typically a slow time for bowling centers, which rely mostly on their fall leagues for revenue, Jugs co-owner Steve Jakubowski said he and his brother Jay have chosen to observe what happens at the other centers before rushing back into operations.

“It had to be done,” Steve Jakuboski said of the shutdown. “It was a no-brainer. I think we’ll be all right, but if there’s another flare-up [of the virus] it could be tough.”

All centers sustained significant revenue losses during the shutdown, some in excess of $200,000. Most have received financial relief from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which issued lump-sum payments, mostly to assist with covering payroll expenses during the reopening.

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