'It feels great to be back': Michigan's bowling alleys, movie theaters, casinos gradually reopen doors

Westland – As soon as the clock struck midnight Monday, Steven Klein, owner of Vision Lanes bowling alley, grabbed a bowling ball and launched it down a lane. Beside him, his wife and daughters did the same. 

Customers, some fresh off working late-night shifts, formed a line outside in anticipation of the alley's reopening. They, too, filtered inside and began to bowl, some continuing until the wee hours of the morning.

Dave Burton of Detroit bowls at Vision Lanes in Westland on Monday Dec. 21, 2020. Michigan’s updated COVID-19 restrictions reopened bowling alleys on Monday.

The late-night bowling session was a way to celebrate being able to reopen during a time when Vision Lanes in Westland has faced hurdles so great that Klein recently penned an "obituary" to the business he and his wife, Lisa, opened 17 years ago, lamenting that his "baby" was "dying slowly." 

It also marked yet another milestone in the dizzying saga of Michigan's pandemic shutdown orders. On Monday, per a new order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, bowling alleys, movie theaters, casinos, stadiums and high schools were permitted to reopen, with safety restrictions in place. Indoor dining remains closed through Jan. 15.

Some businesses jumped eagerly at the chance to welcome back customers as soon as they were allowed; others opted to wait a few days; still others decided to put it off indefinitely due to restrictions such as a prohibition on concession sales. 

The prospect of reopening without being able to serve food and beverages represents a challenge for businesses, particularly movie theaters, that make much of their profit off concessions. 

Numerous Metro Detroit theaters are opting to remain closed for now, saying it's not economically viable to operate without concession sales to cover costs. By some estimations, movie theaters make up to 85% of their revenue through concession sales. 

And in order to promote social distancing, capacity is limited at the establishments that were permitted to reopen.

Ryan Welch of Westland bowls at Vision Lanes in Westland on Monday, the first day Michigan bowling alleys were allowed to reopen with COVID-19 restrictions. Welch came to the bowling alley right after work. “It’s something to take my mind off things,” he said.

The state's order says that for venues with non-fixed seating, capacity is limited to 20 people per 1,000 square feet. For all venues, capacity is limited to no more than 100 people within any "distinct" space in the venue; stadiums and arenas hosting sports events can have up to 250 people.

Still, some operators were ready to reopen, if for no other reason than to provide entertainment for their customers. Troy-based Emagine Entertainment has 10 theaters in Michigan and all but one, The Riviera in Farmington Hills, will reopen Wednesday. 

Emagine doesn't expect to make any profit by reopening, said co-founder and Chairman Paul Glantz, since concession sales represent 48% of per capita income and on average film royalties are about 60%.

"We're opening predominantly to serve our guests," he said. 

What could help is reopening during the week of the release of "Wonder Woman 1984." Emagine and other theaters will also have the thriller "Fatale," the Tom Hanks drama "News of the World" and, for kids, "The Croods: A New Age."

"The importance of opening is that we're all creatures of habit and taking movie-going out of one's habit this year is detrimental to our business long-term," Glantz said. "It's really important we get open because the week between Christmas and New Year's is typically one of the busiest times of the year."

Glantz, who has been vocal about his disdain for the state's orders shutting down theaters, said overall the company's revenue is down 90% this year, but he is hopeful that theaters will make a comeback. 

"Ever since Roman times people have enjoyed congregate activities," he said. "The thought that we're not going to return to congregate activities like going to a basketball game, going to a football game, going to the movies, going to a concert ... it's contrary to human nature."

AMC Theatres did not respond to a request for comment, but showtime listings showed many locations reopened Monday. Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak plans to open Friday. More details on showings will be released at a later date.

Late Monday afternoon, more than a dozen vehicles were in the parking lot of a Livonia AMC theater, though few customers were in sight and the lobby was quiet. Signs posted on windows and around the lobby reminded customers about mask wearing and social distancing requirements, including a rule that no more than six guests may sit together.

MJR Digital Cinemas is slated to reopen all 10 of its metro Detroit locations Wednesday (showtimes are listed on its website). The Bloomfield Hills-based theater chain will have concessions available for carryout during its business hours, according to a spokesperson.

The theater's opening films include "Monster Hunter," "Fatale," "The Croods: A New Age." "Wonder Woman 1984" and "News of the World" open on Christmas Day. 

The theater recommends guests purchase tickets in advance on its website or via its mobile app. Guests also can book a private auditorium for up to 20 people at www.mjrtheatres.com/privateplus.

The Historic Howell Theater is opening Christmas Day with the showing of "Wonder Woman 1984" at 7 p.m. Owner Tyler DePerro recommends guests purchase tickets in advance since capacity is limited. With concessions closed during the movie, the theater will offer to-go concession goodies, including 14-ounce bags of theater popcorn.

The theater also will offer private theater rentals, available from Christmas Day through Jan. 7.

Casinos were also permitted to reopen Monday, but all three of Detroit's casinos will open Wednesday. 

Vicki Ingham, general manager of Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, told The Detroit News that the business was excited to reopen for league play and open bowling, though the concession sales restriction would pose a challenge. After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the new order Friday, Ingham's reaction was mixed; her feeling is that businesses are capable of policing themselves.

Still, the alley was ready to open at 4 p.m. Monday and fielded phone calls throughout the day from bowlers who were eager to return, she said. 

Lisa Bishop of Redford, right, assists Corey Smith of Canton in the bowling shop at Vision Lanes in Westland, Monday. Smith was the first customer inside the store upon the reopening of Michigan’s bowling alleys and cinemas on Dec. 21, 2020.

Corey Smith called Vision Lanes shortly after the business reopened to make sure he could come in and order new shoes, a ball and a bag at the pro shop. 

The total came to nearly $500, but it’s worth it when bragging rights are on the line in the group of friends he plays with recreationally, the 42-year-old from Canton said.

Smith plans to come back Christmas Eve with his new swag for a friendly but competitive tournament. His best score ever is a 290; he’s shooting to beat that with a perfect 300. 

“We’re 40-plus years old so this is like our only hobby pretty much,” he said. “It gets really competitive.”

Zack Sisk couldn’t wait to get back to the bowling alley, so he’s been driving to Ohio and Indiana for the last few weeks while they were closed in Michigan. 

That changed Monday, when the 16-year-old from Brownstown strolled in to Vision Lanes to practice his ball loft for tournaments. He’s been bowling his whole life and plans to play professionally one day. 

“It feels great to be back even with all the restrictions,” Sisk said between throws. “I wish they weren't there but it's all for safety protocols and I understand it.” 


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