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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I can’t wait to have a rink full of smiles back’: Spokane skating rinks, bowling alleys try to hang on despite closures

Shaun Pattison and his wife, Jericho, are shown in their empty roller skating rink on Saturday at Pattison’s North in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane is now in what may well be its time of greatest need for some fun on a slow afternoon.

With the pandemic trapping everyone at home, a trip out for a bit of lighthearted exercise at a roller rink or bowling alley sounds pretty appealing.

But like so many other possibilities for getting out of the house, indoor recreation facilities have been closed throughout Washington since everything changed in March.

Bowling alleys were previously clinging to the hope of reopening in Phase 3, as they’ve been forced to completely shut down since the pandemic began, said Sharlene Palos, owner of North Bowl.

The bowling center on Sinto Avenue had been hoping to reopen by the end of June, Palos said. But new orders from Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, prohibiting places like bowling alleys, arcades and card rooms from opening until Phase 4, put those hopes on hold.

Palos bought the center with her husband Mark just less than a year ago. They’d been saving up for some upgrades to the 65-year-old facility, and the closure provided the perfect time to do that, Palos said. During the shutdown, renovations have been underway on everything from the lanes to the parking lot, Palos said.

But now that North Bowl is unlikely to open anytime soon, Palos said they plan to lay off their remaining employees once the renovations are finished. Those employees, who usually handle maintenance and repairs for the center, were laid off in spring and brought back for the upgrades in summer.

This time, she said, they won’t have a date to come back.

North Bowl still has a bit of a cushion left, Palos said. But if it can’t reopen soon, she fears losing a huge chunk of their yearly business. August and September are “bowlers’ bread and butter,” Palos said, and without that buffer she worries about what happens next.

Palos said once repairs are complete, they plan to power down the alley entirely to get their utility bill as close to zero as they can. They’ve been able to put mortgage payments on hold for the time being, too – a big factor contributing to their survival.

Before they bought North Bowl, Palos and her husband were both respiratory therapists. Palos said she understands the risks involved with COVID-19 and can see why the state would choose to keep all indoor recreation out of reach a little bit longer.

But Palos thinks activities like bowling offer opportunities to improve mental health and raise morale, and she wishes those benefits would be taken into account, too. Other bowling centers have developed extensive plans to keep balls and equipment sanitized, and Palos thinks North Bowl would be able to keep bowlers as safe as possible.

“If we were able to reopen, I’d be totally fine doing so as long as everyone wears masks and practices good hygiene,” Palos said. “If everyone would just follow the rules, I think it would be worth giving us a shot.”

At Pattison’s North roller rink in Fairwood, fourth-generation owner Shaun Pattison said that when the place closed in March, he figured it would be three weeks at most until things could be mostly back to normal. But as their closure dragged on, they refinished the wood skating floor and repainted the whole interior.

Now Pattison’s has been closed since March 16 – its longest stretch without skaters in its entire 69 years, Pattison said.

Under Phase 2 guidelines, roller rinks like Pattison’s are considered “indoor fitness activities” similar to gyms and yoga classes. They could reopen, but with only five participants at any one time – not exactly profitable for the 21,000-square-foot rink, Pattison said.

“So one month led to another, and another and another,” Pattison said. “We’re ready, willing and able, but here we are. All I’d have to do is turn on the lights.”

Some other states have allowed roller rinks to reopen with a percentage of their capacity, Pattison said, and he’d hoped Washington would take a similar route. With so much space, it wouldn’t be too hard to keep skaters spaced out, Pattison said.

Though the rink often sees crowds of around 150 people during an average public skate session, Pattison said even 50 people at a time would be better than nothing. At least then he could make a small profit.

“The thing is, this is a pretty big place,” Pattison said. “Even with all the lights off and no one in here all last month, utilities were $650. If Phase 3 doesn’t happen pretty soon, we are running out of money.”

But the rink has already missed its usual busy season, when graduations and end-of-school parties would keep the place full from spring to early summer. The best bet to catch back up will be in the fall, when the weather turns cooler – if things are different by then.

There has been one unexpected upside to the pandemic for Pattison’s, though. With everything closed, people desperate for something fun to do have turned to roller skating outdoors, a trend evident in countless TikTok videos. The spike in popularity has led to Pattison’s selling out its entire inventory of outdoor skates twice over in the last couple of months.

“It’s definitely not making up the difference, but every little bit helps,” Pattison said.

Though bankers have been willing to work with Pattison’s, offering some flexibility to make smaller payments, Pattison said the situation is getting dire. He and his wife, Jericho, have emptied both their retirement accounts to keep the business going while it’s closed.

And with the rink shuttered, Pattison hasn’t been able to take advantage of state and federal funds aimed at helping suffering businesses, like the Paycheck Protection Program. All 22 of the rink’s employees have been laid off.

Pattison estimates the rink could hang on until September. If things haven’t changed by then, he doesn’t know if Pattison’s North will exist much longer.

Pattison said he sees both sides of the issue. He said he’s always run the rink “by the book,” strictly adhering to all health codes and safety standards, and he doesn’t want to contribute to ever-rising case numbers. But he said it’s “disheartening” to see other recreational facilities, like amusement parks, allowed to reopen to a greater extent under Phase 2.

“I’m usually a pretty conservative businessman,” Pattison said. “It hurts to know this wasn’t because of our poor business decisions. It’s something we can’t do anything about. Basically, I’ve been joking that life sucks so bad I could write a country song.”

Plus, being alone in the empty rink is eerie compared to the sounds of laughter and music that usually echo around the space.

“People are missing it, the fun and the exercise and just getting out of the house,” Pattison said. “I play at work, too. I can’t wait to have a rink full of smiles back here.”

Palos also misses the customers.

She said people show up to North Bowl a few times a week, just to check it’s still closed.

“Our regulars are really our biggest supporters. They’ve become basically friends and family,” Palos said. “So I’m still optimistic we’ll come back stronger than ever, because we’ll always have them backing us.”