On a recent Friday night, the scene at Spin Alley Bowling in Shoreline looked almost … pre-COVIDian.
All 16 lanes were occupied with bowlers who were knocking down pins, knocking back drinks and laughing. There was a lot of laughing, even if you couldn’t see the smiles behind masks.
“I’m happy to be here,” said Scott Andresen, whose son, Paddy, was busy racking up frames as fast as he could. “I’m happy to just be with other people.”
Washington state’s bowling alleys rolled out the balls again on Feb. 1 in accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening after losing most of the winter to lockdown. Like most businesses, bowling centers are now restricted to 25% occupancy in Phase 2 and have rules on sanitizing equipment and ensuring social distancing. They must also follow bar and restaurant rules if they serve food and alcohol.
While alley owners say they’ve definitely seen a steep drop in clientele, brave souls are slowly venturing back to the lanes. They say being at one of the state’s more than 60 bowling centers for an hour feels as close to pre-COVID-19 life as you can get these days.
That’s why 12-year-old Paddy has been urging his parents to the lanes a couple of times a week since they reopened last month. He enjoyed bowling in the Before Times, but has really started leaning into it of late.
“I like seeing how other people are doing and how much fun they are having,” said Paddy, an Einstein Middle School student. “It’s just fun to do. It’s different than sitting at home looking at my phone.”
Even a few months ago, most of us would have cringed at the thought of bowling a few frames with strangers in close proximity. The governor reopened bowling centers briefly last August with fairly severe restrictions, but the most recent round of regulations more closely reflects current thinking on COVID-19 transmission.
“Our pandemic response has evolved with our understanding of the virus, which includes the steps necessary to prevent infection in various social environments,” said Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson. “The governor’s staff worked closely with the bowling industry to develop the appropriate health protocols we believe will allow for more activities while significantly reducing the risk of transmission.”
In fact, at least one health professional says it’s OK to go bowling if you are comfortable with the risks (and your risk factor), follow the regulations and wash, wash, wash your hands before, during and after.
“You want to do these things gradually and safely — not everybody flock to the bowling alley at once,” said Dr. Angie Sparks, a Kaiser Permanente family physician. “And if you don’t enjoy bowling, now’s probably not the time to take it up, because the people that really have missed it will want to have that opportunity. But certainly bowling is a great way to get some social interaction and physical activity with the safety requirements of the phase we’re in, as defined by the governor.”
And that’s great news for the more than five dozen bowling centers in Washington.
“It’s been a tough year,” Spin Alley’s Joe Montero said. “I lost a lot of money, and all the other bowling center owners across the state and across the country lost a lot of money. It’s been tough for everybody. But we’re all fighters and we’re going to make it.”
While it may have looked like a busy night, the crowd was just a fraction of its usual size for a typical wintertime Friday before COVID-19. State restrictions limit each lane to two bowlers, down from as many as eight, and the party room and arcade games remain closed.
Gregory Olsen, executive director of the Washington State Bowling Proprietors Association, said pressure is always high on bowling owner-operators. He represents 65 bowling centers around the state, including eight in the Greater Seattle area. Real estate is costly for owner-operators, and the lanes themselves can cost up to $35,000 apiece and require sometimes costly maintenance.
Even after the pandemic, prices are likely to stay at or below $5 a game. So restrictions on restaurants, bars, arcade games and gathering in general have also been tough on bowling centers.
“And then we’re hoping, of course, that you and your friends may order an adult beverage or you order some food, french fries and a soft drink, so it’s no different than going to a movie,” Olsen said. “We generate revenue from ancillary items. Bowling by itself would need to charge considerably more if that was the only service that they offered in the bowling center.”
Olsen said three of the state’s bowling centers — in Anacortes, Everett and Centralia — closed over the winter due to the pandemic. Many of the rest are meeting weekly on Zoom to share ideas, strategy and tips on applying for aid.
“I’ll tell you that Washington group of bowling owners has been really tight and we’ve all stuck together,” Montero said. “We meet every week. Everybody’s friendly. We don’t act like competitors. I think that’s one of the things that helped a lot of us survive.”
Montero said about 80% of his current crowd is young — patrons are in their 20s or early 30s, and largely unconcerned about the virus. Some families with young children have returned. He’s not seeing many older patrons, however, even though this demographic made up a sizable number of his pre-COVID-19 regulars.
“They’ll fill the house in the afternoons and I assume they’ll come back once the vaccinations are more prominent and things like that,” Montero said. “We just haven’t seen them yet.”
Montero also said he’s lost about 40% of his league bowlers, many of whom are middle-aged and more at risk than his younger clientele.
Another limiting factor has been the perception that shared balls and shoes — most bowlers rent shoes and use alley balls — are, well, kind of gross (even under the best of circumstances). Olsen described a new process for sanitizing equipment that includes two cleanings between uses and a special brush that helps clean finger holes.
“So, if anything, we’re going way overboard,” Olsen said. “So we’re really confident that bowling is really safe.”
Sparks reaffirmed that vigorous sanitation will greatly reduce risk of transmission.
“I can’t cite any scientific knowledge about the surfaces of bowling balls and how the coronavirus interacts with them,” Sparks joked. “I’m sure somebody is studying that. But for most surfaces, if it’s being disinfected after every use … you should be good.”
“And people that are really worried about it don’t come in at all,” Montero said.
Montero says the current limit of 25% occupancy in Phase 2 is too restrictive for profitability, but hopes the state moves to Phase 3 and 50% capacity in late spring or summer.
“I’m expecting to get to 50% capacity, and we can operate pretty comfortably at 50% capacity,” Montero said. “That’s really going to be a game changer for us, and I think for all bowling alleys, big and small. It’s just limiting to have two people per lane.”
The elder Andresen, for one, can’t wait for the day when the alley’s full again. For one thing, it’ll mean that coronavirus is behind us and that life can go back to what we used to think of as “normal.”
“I’m looking around and I’m loving that I’m seeing people out living life,” he said. “It feels normal and that feels good.”