Entertainment venues such as trampoline parks, bowling alleys and arcades were hit hard by COVID restrictions as wary customers hesitated to return to indoor entertainment venues that brought people in close contact with others — and state guidelines called for keeping some of them shuttered longer than other businesses.
As summer approached, however, and COVID infection rates declined, many customers felt ready to return to those establishments. Additionally, parents were looking for ways to entertain children on summer vacation.
Staff at Wamesit Lanes in Tewksbury were ready, having spent months preparing for state guidelines to ease in June, said co-owner Don MacLaren Jr.
“Last summer was obviously disheartening; it was difficult to navigate through,” MacLaren says. Before COVID hit, he and his father, who co-own the entertainment complex, had set up a year of events and plans, all of which were wiped clean when the pandemic started.
“We saw that get taken away, and now we had to try to recover and bring that back,” he says.
They made it through the difficult days when customers were still hesitant to go out by keeping customer and staff safety the top priority, MacLaren says.
This summer was much different, he adds. Anticipating the state guidelines to ease in June, MacLaren says they began hiring staff in February and booking entertainment for their large patio, which customers were eager to utilize.
“There was a lot more of a comfort level among our customers and among our staff,” he says.
Indoors, customers were comfortable with extra precautions taken by staff to keep an open lane between each group of bowlers.
“They basically have their own little cubicle,” he says.
“We went above and beyond what was required,” he says. Word began to spread of the extra protocols taken by staff, he adds, which helped draw in customers who knew the virus was being taken seriously. The large space, high ceilings and strong ventilation system also help people feel at ease, he says.
“It came to a point where people just needed to get out and have something to do, and what better place than an entertainment complex,” MacLaren says.
At Altitude Trampoline Park in Billerica, which was one of the final businesses allowed to reopen under the state’s phased plan, this summer was busier than they expected, general manager Rick Belding says.
Once the statewide mask mandate was lifted, he notes, customers seemed to be much more comfortable coming in and enjoying the facility.
Billerica instated a townwide mask mandate a couple of weeks ago, but it hasn’t slowed down business, he adds.
The trampoline park is also seeing a bustling birthday party business, Belding says, with an average of 10 parties per weekend. While not as high as pre-COVID, the numbers are climbing.
While the region saw customers ready to go out and spend money again, Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce president Joe Bevilacqua says businesses are struggling to find the necessary help to provide their services.
“Every single business I’ve spoken to, even this morning, all say they cannot find any help,” Bevilacqua says.
Without the help, businesses can’t operate as usual even though COVID restrictions have eased, he said. Some have reduced hours, or close for additional days. Others operate at a reduced capacity.
All businesses are facing the same issue, he adds, whether retail, restaurants or the service industry. But as the unemployment benefits program ends, Bevilacqua believes the business community should see an improvement.
“They’re hoping it may encourage people to go back to work,” he says.