Bowlers compete in a socially-distanced version of league play at Rainier Lanes on Thursday in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | The Daily World)

Bowlers compete in a socially-distanced version of league play at Rainier Lanes on Thursday in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | The Daily World)

Bowling in Grays Harbor on the brink

State government restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have hit many small business in the Twin Harbors hard.

Rob Shaver, who owns both major bowling alleys on Grays Harbor — Rainier Lanes in Aberdeen and Shores Bowl in Ocean Shores — says that includes his businesses.

While bowling alleys in many small towns across the country have closed for business reasons over the past decade-plus, Shaver’s have remained popular spots for more than two decades now, popular enough to begin implementing several upgrades and improvements just before the COVID-19 panic gripped the nation.

Seven months later and Shaver, who recently re-opened both Shores Bowl and Rainier Lanes for league play, is just trying to keep his once successful business afloat after the governor’s long-term shutdown and regulations have made things in an already thin-margin industry that much more difficult.

The guidelines included the standard practices of face coverings, social distancing markers, hand sanitizing stations — typical of what every business has to deal with in the age of COVID. But for a business deemed “non-essential,” extra measures must be taken.

“Prior to March 17, before the governor shut us down, both of my centers were doing well,” Shaver said. “I’ve been in Ocean Shores for 22 years and in Aberdeen over 20. … We just maintain a steady course and try to take care of our people. We have a nice, loyal base at each center and that’s the reason why we’ve been able to sustain what we have. But now it’s going to be interesting to see what we have moving forward.”

League play resumed at Rainier Lanes on Wednesday and Thursday, with Shaver and his staff having to follow guidelines handed down from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

Washington is the only state to limit the number of bowlers per lane to two persons, seriously restricting the ability to hold leagues and limiting any extra space available for non-league bowling.

“If you’ve got a league that has eight teams, but you’ve only got 12 lanes, you would need 16 lanes to put two people on every lane, so you can’t do that,” Shaver said. “So you use eight lanes two times. The first half of the league comes in and bowls, they vacate, you sanitize then the second set of bowlers comes in. It takes an incredible amount of flexibility by the customers as well as the proprietor because they have to be flexible in their bowling times, they are only getting to bowl with half the amount of people per lane (typically four players per lane). They have to wear masks and no spectators are allowed, so it’s quite different for everybody.”

Additional restrictions include limits on food and beverage sales and on alternative activities, such as video games, pool tables and darts, important revenue streams. This also includes a mini-golf attraction Shaver installed at the Aberdeen location.

“I think because it’s so restricted, a lot of days we have to turn away more people than we can get because they don’t meet the guidelines to bowl.” Shaver said. “And if there are no video games, no pool, no darts, no shuffleboard, there is no ancillary income. People can’t stand and wait for a lane or wait in your building. You’re (limited to) 50 percent occupancy for food and beverage and alcohol sales are stopped at 10 p.m. So it’s quite crippling.”

To keep his business afloat, Shaver has to figure out how to utilize what little space of his building he can use.

“Our arcade is gone now, we’ve put additional seating in there. … We can’t use miniature golf as it’s still banned indoors. We’ve got all that just sitting there,” he said. “We’ve got birthday party rooms we can’t use because we can’t do birthday parties, but we’re still paying taxes, still paying the mortgage on the whole building, but I can only use part of it.”

Wednesday marked the second time Rainier Lanes has attempted to re-open since the lock down was first ordered on March 17 and was shuttered again on July 30. Bowlers filled the lanes as much as the state allowed in hopes of returning to their chosen recreation and to regain a bit of normalcy in an abnormal time.

Terry Church, a Hoquiam native and the reigning senior state singles champion, has been bowling in the area since 1959 and said that getting back to a favorite recreational activity is vitally important.

“It’s a big part of my life,” he said. “Being a senior citizen, it’s hard to find things where you don’t feel isolated. So the idea of getting back with some camaraderie with my friends is very important to my mental health, and everybody’s mental health.”

Wednesday’s head count for league play in Aberdeen was 34 bowlers. Not bad for an opening night where the maximum allowed by the state is 40, but far off when compared to last year’s numbers.

“We had 60 bowlers between my two (Wednesday night) leagues last year,” Shaver said. “I’ve done this my whole adult life, but this is a drill I’ve never had to run. I have no playbook. I just know the restrictions and follow the guidelines. We’re going to run it for a bit and see if we are better off doing it this way or better off buttoning it up.”

The uncertainty cuts into his ability to run business anywhere close to full scale and means Shaver has also contemplated how often he can open.

“We won’t be open seven days a week, because if it doesn’t pencil out I can’t do it. It’s just that critical right now,” he said. “It’s day by day, but the bowlers want us, so we’ll be there. That’s what I’ve been telling the people, ‘If you want it, I will be there. If you don’t, I hear you loud and clear and we won’t be there.’”

Shaver’s story is similar to so many small businesses in the area, and like many of those businesses struggling to make ends meet in the Twin Harbors, his loyal customer base is showing support. Based on feedback he’s received, Shaver anticipates 80 percent return of league bowlers for Shores Bowl and a conservative 60 percent at Rainier Lanes.

“Everybody is looking for something to do,” Church said. “We feel really isolated and we need this thing. … It’s hard to explain how much blood, sweat and tears (Shaver) has put into (Rainier Lanes) and Ocean Shores. … Our leagues are full, even with two on a lane. … My biggest fear is that something might happen and the government will shut it down again.”

After spending two decades keeping bowling alive and well in the Twin Harbors, Shaver’s livelihood, like so many others, is in the fight of its life and by no fault of its own. But the support of a customer base that has rallied in his support gives Shaver hope there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

“Even with the restrictions, we have people who want to do this,” he said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming to me because I’m humbled by it. If we didn’t have these people, we’d be done. We couldn’t make it.”

 

A sign at the entrance of Rainier Lanes’ neon mini-golf course notifies customers the course is currently closed on Thursday in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | The Daily World)

A sign at the entrance of Rainier Lanes’ neon mini-golf course notifies customers the course is currently closed on Thursday in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | The Daily World)