I went bowling Friday. Normally, that would not qualify as any kind of news flash, even if has been 20 years or more since I broke out the old 16-pound Brunswick Black Diamond and took steely aim just inside the second spot from the left.
But normally left town more than a month ago.
Now going bowling is a trip to the front lines of the public response to a pandemic. It represents a slightly defiant act against the mountain of medical wisdom that argues this is no time to bowl. People are dying, the COVID-19 death rate in the U.S. approaching that of those killed in action in Vietnam. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has become a pincushion for critics nationwide for allowing businesses like hair stylists, gyms, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys to reopen – with certain restrictions – Friday.
I just wanted to see what it might be like to take that initial baby step back toward life as it was – and this was no time to get a first tattoo. The canvas is a little too wrinkled.
This isn’t swimming with sharks. This isn’t skydiving. It’s bowling, where the greatest risk is supposed to be to one’s fashion sense (oh, those shoes). And, yet, there was a CNN crew in the parking lot of Douglasville’s Southern Lanes as it was set to open at noon Friday to record the first wave landing on the shore, striking a beachhead of normalcy, or a facsimile thereof. Bowling was headline stuff.
At the door were the owners Randy Hicks and Debroah Holland. Not all the alley owners around the Atlanta area were so quick to open. Quite the opposite, some were adamant about remaining closed. On its website The Comet Pub and Lanes in Decatur posted this message: “Recently Gov. Kemp announced that bowling alleys, restaurants, and other public establishments could reopen in the next several days. While we are quite eager to return to The Comet, we disagree with the governor that it is now safe to do so. We feel that it is too early in the progression of the pandemic to invite staff and guests to gather, socialize and bowl together.”
Neither Hicks nor Holland came off as if trying to make some grand statement here. They did not seem the type who would join anyone’s gun-toting parade to recklessly throw open the doors of commerce. There was no militancy to this moment. “We’re just glad to be able to get going again,” Hicks said, adding that he fully expected to lose money early on given the restrictions they are facing.
Holland was taking the temperature of everyone who entered the lanes. Hicks reminded them to use the hand sanitizer stationed at the entrance.
The new normal extended to the front desk, where the attendant, in a mask, pointed out the selection of house balls now confined to a few tables in the middle of the room rather than on racks all around the alley. They all had been sanitized with an aerosol disinfectant, she assured. The rental shoes, they are always disinfected, she said.
Social distancing – bowling version – now means limiting the number of people per lane and keeping at least one empty lane between you and the next group. Nobody should be sharing bowling balls, either.
The small crowd on this first afternoon - seven of the 32 lanes occupied - tilted toward the regulars, those with rolling bowling bags and multiple balls for every occasion. “Finally had a shot to walk out of the house and do something. It has been four or five weeks since I’ve been out,” said Atlanta’s Antonio Leonard. “I wanted to come by here, make sure there weren’t too many people. And I know the owners, and know they’ll do it right.” He bowled for just under an hour and didn’t have a game under 200.
One family that included two young children were among the first in Georgia to return to bowling, although they seemed to be having too much fun to attach any significance to their games. Just to be safe, their parents placed a bottle of hand sanitizer on the scorer’s table.
Then there was the sportswriter, doing something so rash as to bowl. Was this wrong to be here? Was it a selfish act in the face of a crisis?
Or was it a much-needed diversion, well managed? A choice to escape to a place that seemed very serious about trying to reopen safely, a refuge from the noisy debate of when and what to reopen?
These are the tough questions we’ll all be asking ourselves as the world slowly rouses from this induced coma. Soon enough we’ll know the real impact of Kemp’s call to open the doors and what we have wrought by walking through them.
For the record, I bowled two games. The scores don’t matter – that’s what everyone whose high was a woeful 134 might say. What mattered was returning home with the presumption of good health.
And here we are at this strange place in time when even bowling seems a guilty pleasure.
When bowling is an act of faith. Faith that we are capable of making safe decisions on our own, and that allowing some measure of free will is not some awful mistake.
As Holland said as I walked out the door, “We are hoping and praying that everyone is smart and that we (the shopkeepers) are smart, too.”
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