The timetable for reopening accelerated considerably for bowling-center operators in Pinellas County, Fla., this week after a key executive order from Governor Ron DeSantis. A little extra help from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri and County Administrator Barry Burton set things in motion in a big way.
Governor DeSantis's Executive Order 20-123, released Friday, established that all counties throughout the state officially could move into "Full Phase 1" reopening. The order explicitly allows for gyms, libraries, retail stores and restaurants to open to the public at 50 percent occupancy. While the order did not specifically identify bowling centers and movie theaters among the types of businesses allowed to reopen, Gaultieri and Burton interpreted that to mean they were not explicitly prohibited from reopening, either.
"Nothing within the order restricted movie theaters, didn't restrict bowling alleys, either," Burton said during a Facebook Live announcement alongside Gaultieri. "Under a Phase One, movie theaters, bowling alleys, those types of venues are allowed to operate using the 50-percent capacity and social distancing requirements."
BPAA Secretary Kevin Krauss, operator of Sunrise Lanes in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Seminole Lanes in Seminole, Fla., reopened Monday and said he plans to begin summer leagues starting June 1 "with teams on every other pair" to ensure adherence to those social distancing requirements called for in the Governor's executive order.
Making social distancing a little easier at his centers, he says, are the doubles and trios leagues set to shoe up. "I'll put them across 40 lanes [at Seminole] because there are fewer bowlers per pair," explains Krauss, who also plans to keep house balls at the desk and ask open-bowling customers to leave their house balls and shoes at the lanes after they are done for staff to pick up and sanitize.
Krauss conceded that he expects open-play bowling business to be "a grind" compared to league bowlers. "The league bowling base is what it is. They're going to come in."
Even so, by the time the typically much busier fall league season comes around, Krauss said, "If we're doing business at 80 percent of where we were, I'd be tickled to death. I expect it to be less than that, but I'm an optimist."
Krauss had been scheduled to host the PWBA Players Championship at Seminole Lanes Aug. 19-22. Though the PWBA Tour remains on hiatus due to the pandemic, the fact that a scheduled host center for one of its 2020 events has reopened in a state that is loosening its lockdown protocols raises the question: Might Seminole Lanes be in a position to host a PWBA Tour event at any time this year?
“If something worked out schedule-wise for us and for them, we certainly would consider it, without a doubt,” Krauss said. “We’ll do anything to support that ladies’ tour.”
Former BPAA President John LaSpina, who operates Maple Lanes Countryside in Clearwater, joked that he was "trying to get happy" about reopening, "but then I looked at the deposits from the past couple of days."
"We opened late afternoon" on Monday, "rather quietly," he said. "We brought a few teammates back, and we want to be careful. We're only open one shift; I believe we're going noon to 8 until we realize that it needs to be different. We had 18 lanes going yesterday when I called. So right now, it's trickling in.
"House balls are sanitized. We ask the bowler to leave it on the lane, then we'll come and we'll sanitize and clean them. There's ball sanitizer. There's plastic screens. We're trying to get people to only use credit cards. We actually shut down the ATM to discourage cash. We're trying to minimize transactions. Food preparation and food presentation is a little bit different, and the containers we're using."
The reopening in Florida might provide a helpful dress rehearsal for the reopenings to come with LaSpina's four centers in New York, which he described as still being "locked down tight" and scheduled for a Phase 4 reopening. "Last of the last. We'd be lucky if it's June 15th," said LaSpina, who remains in New York while staff handles the Florida reopening on the ground in Clearwater.
At his Florida center, LaSpina is thankful he has a pretty sizable outdoor deck area associated with Lucky's Sports Bar, the center's restaurant and lounge, where he said he could seat a good 60-or-so customers while still enacting social distancing.
A message on the portion of Maple Lanes Countryside's website devoted to Lucky's reads, "we are very happy to be open and will be taking every precaution in a safe environment including following the recommended social distance guidelines and frequently, all while providing the same great experience you have come to expect at Lucky's Sports Bar."
Added LaSppina: "We took all the bar stools away; there are probably 25 of them, and we separated the tables so that there's lots of space. Unlike my New York world, we're blessed with space in Florida."
He is not yet sure if he will be blessed with the opportunity to run another PBA50 Johnny Petraglia BVL Open at Maple Lanes Countryside as he did last year. The event had been scheduled to return to Clearwater again April 19-22 before COVID-19 shut down the professional sports world.
LaSpina's heart certainly is in having the event, as he remains a tireless champion for BVL's cause. Logistically, however, the post-pandemic environment presents its challenges.
"Think of social distancing. How do you put a hundred pros on lanes and give them space? Think of traveling. We have a sponsor; can we do him justice?" LaSpina said. "Can we do a pro-am? There's nobody there to talk to, and it's hard to sell pro-am entries on the phone. It's problematic at the moment; I want to be more positive, but I have to be realistic, too. We speak with [PBA Regional and PBA50 Director] John Weber regularly. I'm going to give it a 'definite maybe' at the moment."
"My first priority was getting us open, making sure the staff was safe, making sure we're ready for company and keeping them safe," he said.