LGBTQ bowling alley owner to Kemp: It’s too soon

The LGBTQ owner of two bowling alleys in metro Atlanta – allowed by Gov. Brian Kemp to open as early as Friday – said her concerns about the safety of her employees and customers made her decision simple. She’s staying closed.

Funtime Bowl – with locations on Buford Highway and in Forest Park – has been closed since March 17. Owner Ellen Howard said the facilities will remain that way for now.

“We are not going to open,” Howard said. “I just think he jumped the gun. It’s just too soon. We have to see the numbers go the other way before we do that.”

On Monday, Kemp eased coronavirus restrictions across the state and allowed a slate of businesses – gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians and massage therapists – to open as of Friday. His actions come as the state continues to see daily increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths.

Without a change in the trajectory of COVID-19, Howard said it’s too risky to reopen her business. And even when she’s able to welcome customers back, physical distancing guidelines may necessitate operating just half of the 24 lanes in each facility.

“With the stipulation of 12 lanes running and expenses, I just don’t know if you can make it,” Howard said.

Even if she opened the doors, Howard said she’s not sure customers would return. A large portion of the business on Buford Highway consists of students from nearby colleges, which have shut down. At her Forest Park venue, much of the business comes from African-Americans, who are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and may be reluctant to gather in public places.

Howard and her staff will also have to put in place ways to disinfect bowling balls and other safety methods to protect customers and employees.

“I’ve got to give that customer the peace of mind that we are trying to keep it as safe as possible,” Howard said.

After she closed the bowling alleys, Howard laid off her 22 employees. She’s applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but her application wasn’t approved before the effort ran out of funds last week. As she considers when to re-open, Howard said she has to balance the costs of running the business with what she expects to be a slow return of revenue.

“With a limited group of people, it isn’t cost-effective,” she said. “Can you make money off of half the house?”

Howard will revisit when to open the bowling alleys in a week to 10 days. When she does, it will likely be with limited hours of operation to gauge the response from customers. For now, she’s temporarily returned to her hometown of Savannah to care for her elderly father.

“This is where I needed to be, so I packed up my computer and have been working from here,” Howard said.

Read more coverage of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting LGBTQ Atlanta.