Brian Calley, the president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, says he can bowl a 160.
In most crowds, that’s pretty decent. But not so, in his hometown of Portland, Michigan.
“I can’t hardly show my face in Portland, because that’s not good enough,” Calley joked. “There’s some really serious bowlers there.”
Bowling is part of the lifeblood of his small city, with less than 4,000 people. There's one bowling alley – The Wagon Wheel – and the owners are big supporters of the community from most every angle, Calley said.
But the bowling lanes have sat quiet since late March, along with 300-plus other family-owned bowling alleys in Michigan. While bowling has restarted in northern Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-160 is keeping the lanes closed in the rest of the state indefinitely.
The Bowling Centers Association of Michigan is suing Whitmer, asking a federal court to grant an emergency injunction and allow bowling to restart immediately. Whitmer’s office is required to file a response to the lawsuit by Sept. 2, per court documents.
Bowling alleys are now open in 45 of the 50 U.S. states after many were forced to shut down earlier in the pandemic, per the lawsuit.
"We're still befuddled why bowling is still closed in Michigan," said BCAM Executive Director Bo Goergen. He's also a third-generation owner of Northern Lanes Recreation near Midland.
Casinos, barbershops, restaurants and more have been allowed to reopen with precautions in place. Bowling businesses can ensure the same protections – and more, Goergen said. For example, bowling alleys have more space for social distancing than most restaurants and can require masks at all times.
"Shared rental bowling balls or shared shoes – what's the difference between that and a shopping cart or a basket at a grocery store?" Goergen said.
A Whitmer spokesperson said the governor is taking all inquires seriously and will reopen industries when it makes sense to, based on data and science.
What pandemic-age bowling might look like
As Goergen tries to convince lawmakers that bowling can be safe, he’s pleading they take a tour of Spare Time Entertainment Center in Lansing, as proof.
Among the COVID-19 precautions on display at Spare Time are clear plastic curtains separating the bowling lanes.
"At $25 a separator, I think most proprietors would have no problem with putting those in, if that's a requirement," Goergen said.
Bowling alleys can be safe with precautions like temperature checks, capacity limits, social distancing, sanitation stations, plexiglass in front of the counters, separation curtains and more, Goergen said.
Merri-Bowl Lanes in Livonia – which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit – has already invested in technology to keep bowlers safe. It installed a bi-polar ionization plasma filtration system and UV light purification in its HVAC system to kill COVID-19 particles in the air, per the lawsuit.
The question shouldn't be "if" certain activities can reopen in Michigan, but "how," Calley said.
Bowling alleys are lumped into the category of businesses including arcades, amusement parks, skating rinks and trampoline parks, as places that can’t reopen yet in Michigan.
"Why not give bowling alleys to open under the same conditions that everybody else has been given?" Calley said.
The misperception of the 'bowling alley'
Goergen and some other industry leaders would prefer people stop calling their businesses "bowling alleys."
“We’re not bowling alleys – as the misperception that’s probably in the (Whitmer) administration today, of smoke-filled dungeons,” Goergen said. “Alleys are out back. We are facilitators of recreation in many aspects, so we’d like to be called bowling centers.”
Smoking has been banned inside public places in Michigan since 2010.
The push to rebrand “bowling alleys” as “bowling centers” isn’t new, but is particularly important during the pandemic, as industry leaders try to convince lawmakers of the cleanliness and safety of bowling facilities.
"Most bowling centers are not what everybody remembers," said Spare Time Co-Owner Michael MacColeman. "Bowling has come through a transformation in the last 20 years."
Bowling alleys may have been smoky and dirty back in the day, but they have a different vibe now, Goergen said. Plus, the filtration systems are strong in bowling alleys because they had to deal with the cigarette smoke before the smoking ban, Goergen said.
Many bowling businesses have expanded beyond the pins, offering attractions like restaurants, arcades, go karts, volleyball and other forms of entertainment.
Business owners sweat as busy season approaches
Summers are typically slower seasons for most bowling centers, MacColeman said. The busiest season – thanks to league play starting up – is the fall.
Which is why getting the ear of decision makers is more important now than ever, Goergen said. Michigan has more than 100,000 league bowlers, he said.
Most bowling centers are independently owned, as well, making it tougher to withstand long periods of time with no revenue.
"They're one of the types of businesses that have been impacted most severely in this pandemic," Calley said of bowling centers. "I'm hopeful that the policymakers at the state will allow them a chance to survive."
Without being able to open for the fall, industry leaders say many bowling centers could close permanently. Activities like bowling may be easy for some lawmakers to write off during a pandemic, Calley said, but they must recognize the impact goes beyond 10 frames of entertainment.
“People have poured their whole lives into these businesses,” Calley said. “And everything is at risk. It can’t just be discounted and written off. In many communities like mine, it’s an important part of the community.
“It’s a gaping hole as long as it’s required to be closed.”