Ready to escape an alien threat or break out of a 1940s-era insane asylum to get your mind off the pandemic?
Perhaps you’re ready to play some board games while sipping cocktails or throw an ax at a target to relieve stress?
With the state’s reopening governed by certain restrictions, indoor entertainment-based businesses have been making a slow comeback across the Granite State. Such places include arcades, ax-throwing venues, board games cafes, bowling alleys and escape rooms.
Key to Escape, an escape room in Nashua, reopened two weeks ago after being forced to close in March.
“We had more customers than we were expecting,” said Lara Barkley, who co-owns the business with her father, John. “And everyone was compliant with the mandatory mask law in Nashua and all the additional protocols we put in place.”
In recent years, entertainment-based businesses and restaurants have become popular in downtown areas and at retail centers to attract crowds. Since reopening, many businesses have found it tough to turn a profit because of limited capacity and the need for increased cleaning supplies and staff.
Many just want to ensure consumer confidence so people feel comfortable returning with their families or a close group of friends.
“People who have never played might be hesitant to come for the first time because they might not understand the precautions,” Barkley said. The business has enhanced its cleaning procedures and limited interactions with strangers.
Some national chains like Chuck E. Cheese — which has reopened on South Willow Street in Manchester — have struggled. Parent company CEC Entertainment filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of the “prolonged, COVID-19 related venue closures,” according to a news release.
The company plans to close 34 locations nationwide, though Manchester is not among them.
At the Mall of New Hampshire, Dave & Buster’s, an arcade and sports bar with more than 130 locations nationwide, was set to open in March before the pandemic hit. The location’s opening date is unknown, but the company is still looking to hire game techs, servers, cooks and more. Dave & Buster’s did not return a request for comment.
Electric Avenue Arcade on Bridge Street in Manchester has been selling T-shirts and put a few games up for sale to pay the bills, according to its Facebook page.
“As you may have heard, our forced closure will be lifted as of next week. We are trying to figure out how to open as soon as possible,” the June 10 note read.
‘Starting all over’
A year ago, Tracey McCormick opened RelAxe Throwing in an industrial park near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport after visiting an ax-throwing venue while on vacation in Texas. Her business temporarily closed in March — not the way she imagined celebrating her one-year anniversary.
“It is like starting all over again,” she said after reopening last month. “Before COVID, we were turning people away. We were that packed.”
Now, the business must operate at 50% capacity. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome if business is slow.
“I know that everyone who comes is having a blast,” McCormick said. “They feel better and that is what we are here for.”
For safety, even before the pandemic, people were more than six feet apart when throwing.
“If a family comes together they can throw right near each other, but if they are anywhere near another stranger there is a whole target in between them,” she said. “That is at least eight feet, sometimes 10 feet away.”
Dover Bowl Family Fun Center reopened as soon as allowed under the state guidelines, according to owner Dick Anagnost.
“We’ve got a diminished capacity so there are less people,” he said. “It’s not profitable to be operating, but we need to show our customers that we are open in order to build consumer confidence so the business can come back. You can’t operate any business at 50% and expect it to be profitable.”
The center is only opening every other lane for bowling. Some of the attractions have yet to reopen, such as the bumper cars.
“One of the drawbacks is we actually turn people away because we can’t accommodate them, so there is a waiting time for them to get in,” Anagnost said. “People who are going bowling are going because they want to bowl. They don’t want to wait an hour for a lane to become available. It is kind of a double-whammy where you’re at 50% capacity and you’re turning your customers away.”
Staying closed, however, will “tank the business forever,” he said.
Clean, clean, clean
At Key to Escape, part of the job now includes 90 minutes between games to wipe down with cleaning products and employ a brand new ultraviolet disinfection light.
“That is time-consuming because every item needs to be hit with the UV light from five to 10 seconds to be effective,” Barkley said. Such cleaning devices aren’t required, but the Barkleys felt it necessary to make sure both their staff and customers feel safe.
Dover Bowl has staff members who are focused on disinfecting.
Boards and Brews, a board game cafe on Elm Street in Manchester, is preparing to reopen on Monday using a reservation system for three-hour blocks.
The business uses disinfectant wipes on some of the board games while harder-to-clean games will be taken off the shelves, according to bar manager Tina Gibbons.
In terms of space, the business is only allowed to have six people per table and is putting its popular Monday night Dungeons & Dragons gatherings on hold.
“It might be a smaller scale and a shorter time, but at least you can go out, play some fun board games, have some great cocktails and just act like it’s kind of getting back to normal,” Gibbons said.
Dave Casinghino, one of the owners, said the business was able to secure a grant through the state’s Main Street Relief Fund. He declined to say for how much.
“It’s definitely a hit, obviously, if you are reducing capacity to 50%. You are going to see that hit,” he said. “It’s hard to say when things will get back to normal exactly, but I think we’ll be able to hang in until then.”