As the fear of death has stalked cities across the nation, so too has the shadowy specter of economic ruin lurked in shuttered businesses and along empty streets.
After being shutdown nearly 8 weeks, two entertainment businesses are open this weekend and its owners are taking the pandemic seriously.
Sooner Bowl scheduled its reopening on Friday while Heyday opened mini golf three weeks ago and reorganized its bowling alley and common areas last week. Andy Alligators has not determined a reopening date, owner Kyle Allison told The Transcript. He was unable to provide an interview for this story.
When Mayor Breea Clark amended her order to reopen churches on May 8, she allowed entertainment venues to reopen with occupancy restrictions to enforce social distancing and sanitation efforts.
“We've been allowing families, separated by group to play every 10 minutes, so there's always at least a full hole of distance between any two groups of six or fewer. It's been really fun,” Heyday owner Trey Bates said. “We've had a lot of families be very appreciative of the fact that we've given them an opportunity to do something outside and do something as a family that would be different than being at home.”
Sooner Bowl kept its kitchen open serving food for togo orders and pivoted to offer “take and bake” meals in time for Mother's Day. Kitchen staff made cookie baskets for Easter, anything to stay in business and keep some employees working, Haws said.
Both venues have closed every other bowling lane, set up sanitizer stations, and limited occupancy to their facilities to enforce social distancing.
At Heyday, guests wait in their car until their appointment to play. Customers must answer a questionnaire and have their temperature taken before entering the building.
“Does anyone have symptoms, has anyone been diagnosed with COVID or been exposed to it,” Bates said of the questions. Guests show their ID at the gate where wrists bands are issued for those of drinking age to minimize contact with staff inside.
Everyone is required to sanitize their hands before entering the building.
Sooner Bowl changed its cleaning products to hospital grade solutions specifically to address COVID-19 and it purchased a bowling ball sanitizer in addition to other tools for social distancing.
“We also bought some mister sprays that can get into the holes of the bowling balls and we're changing procedures,” Haws said. “Everything will be cleaned when guests come in and when they leave staff will clean their lane after every use. We will be cleaning almost constantly.”
Heyday closed before Clark's initial order which shuttered all non-essential businesses on March 16.
“We closed the Sunday before everybody else started closing. We saw that part of our mission was to provide a safe environment for our families and we were trying to be really positive and secure in the way we were dealing with our customers. I feel good about the way we have approached this,” he said.
Despite the disparity between revenue and overhead expenses, Bates kept a few employees working as he reached for the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) supplement for workers he couldn't staff.
“We haven't been doing it to make money,” Bates admitted. “We've basically been losing money in terms of the actual labor versus revenue but it has been a way to keep people working that wanted to work and keeping parts of the facility open safely.”
Sooner Bowl paid as many staff as it could and allowed other employees to furlough. The kitchen staff and bowling maintenance crews continued to work. Management took advantage of the downtime to do some remodeling. It also obtained PPP funds which covers 75% of labor and 25% for utilities.
“When people say they're worried about business, what they mean is they're worried about the people in the business,” she said. “It was a very heavy weight and responsibility to be worried about what was going on with everybody because we know they rely on us to a certain extent.”
Reopening is also a revenue challenge for both businesses with the facility's capacity roughly cut in half to affect social distancing. Clark's Healthier at Home order allows entertainment venues to open at 50% capacity and increases to 75% on June 12 when phase three begins, if new cases are a downward trend.
“Laser tag it's usually 40 players,” Bates said. “We're opening it to 10 players who come with their own group. In the arcade we took out a third of the game room.”
Haws estimates investing at least $5,000 in sanitation equipment and while she is grateful to reopen to limited capacity, it will not account for the far-reaching affects on revenue.
“So we have realized that some of our bowlers fall into that high risk category because of their age or health issues. Right now many of our leagues just went ahead and ended early instead of bowling it out,” she said. “We have some that ended as many as eight weeks early which has been a ding, to say the least but we get it. We want everybody to stay safe, we want everybody to do this at their own comfort level.”
As customers returned to Heyday, it was a morale boost for Bates. When he opened the venue's bowling alley last weekend, he spent most of his time talking to customers. It was booked all weekend.
“People were so grateful,” he recalled warmly. “So many people thanked us for opening, for giving them a safe place to take their families. I've even seen nurses in here who were in the COVID wing and that was a good feeling to know that if they feel safe, we're doing something right. It was great having people back in here.”
As some league players returned to Sooner Bowl Friday, Haws was happy to see her customers.
“Of course I'm very happy. Some of the first people in the door were league bowlers, because they were excited to be back and bowl and see all the changes,” she said. “It feels great. I feel that we do serve a place in the community, and not being able to do that was heartbreaking. I think it's important to be that place where people can let go, have fun and enjoy themselves and spend time with the people they love.”
Mindy Ragan Wood