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Sonoma County family entertainment businesses rally for relief from COVID-19 restrictions

Since 1976, Cal Skate has been part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sonoma County residents — whether for birthday parties, date nights or training for inline speed skating competitions.

But, like other entertainment venues that rely predominantly on indoor space, its future is in doubt from closure due to COVID-19 pandemic. Owner Jeannie Saya said she has no idea when she will be able to open under the four-tier framework put in place this summer by state public health officials.

“It’s already getting dicey,” said Saya, who rescued the Rohnert Park facility in a 2003 purchase as the roller skating rink was then about to close. Now it is on similarly shaky footing.

Saya said she has been aided by Redwood Credit Union, which has helped temporarily reduce monthly payments on her pre-existing federal small business loan. But she quickly noted “they can’t hang in with us forever.”

The same plight faces other owners of Sonoma County family entertainment businesses who on Sunday afternoon held a small outdoor rally in Santa Rosa to highlight their struggles and advocate for regulatory relief to allow them to partially open for customers.

Gathered in Old Courthouse Square, they also called on Congress to pass another stimulus bill that can keep them solvent for the next couple of months. About 50 people turned out for the event, including local businesses as Rebounderz, Fundemonium, Double Decker Lanes, Epicenter Sports and Entertainment and Windsor Bowling Center.

“It’s day to day. There are imminent closures that will happen if something doesn’t change soon,” said Brad Bergum, chief financial officer for the Epicenter Sports & Entertainment complex in Santa Rosa, which has indoor soccer fields, a gym, a bowling alley, arcade and laser tag activities.

“We don’t try peer too much into each other’s financials, but from the discussions we have had internally, it’s desperate,” Bergum added.

The sector employs more than 500 people in Sonoma County and is mostly comprised of longtime family businesses rather than national chains. With the exception of a few weeks in June and July when restrictions were temporarily loosened, most of these businesses have been closed since March 18, when the county’s stay-at-home order went into effect.

Under state guidelines, Sonoma County is currently in the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s reopening plan. Its rate of new daily infections per 100,000 residents and the daily percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19 both need to fall if it is to progress to the next, less restrictive red tier.

Last week, Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, said the county was not poised to meet those state benchmarks. But each Tuesday in the current framework marks a new week, when state health authorities look at those numbers and counties’ progress in controlling the disease and decide whether they can move forward with reopening.

Still, most of the business owners interviewed on Sunday said they would only be allowed to open in the third stage, the orange tier, where the test positivity rate needs to be between 4.9% and 2%. As of last week, it was above 8% in Sonoma County.

The businesses are hindered because almost all of their activities are inside and are considered to be riskier by health officials. Movie theaters also are in same category, with no go-ahead to reopen until the county hits the orange tier.

Roller skating rinks face an even longer wait, as they would not be allowed to reopen until the county hits the last category, the yellow tier, where coronavrius positivity rates have to be less than 2%. Saya said that needs to change or she risks losing her business.

The rare exception among the group of venues is Scandia Family Fun Center in Rohnert Park. It has been able to open its outdoor activities, including miniature golf and batting cages, under social distancing and health protocols. Epicenter also has 10 arcade games under a tent in its parking lot for those who come for outdoor dining, Bergum said.

“It’s not something keeping the business afloat,” he said. “It’s something where we can break even on it we are pretty happy.”

Business owners on Sunday talked about other moves they would make to work within pandemic precautions.

Buffalo Billiards in Petaluma could open up its space safely by limiting use of its pool tables by half so parties would be kept six feet away from each other as well as requiring all the patrons to wear masks, said owner Lee Simon. He also has a garage door he could open up to allow better air flow into his facility. Simon said the reopening framework for businesses in California was too rigid because it didn’t take in factors such as square footage of a facility or its ability to allow in fresh air.

The only thing that has helped Simon’s business is his retail component that sells pool tables and accessories. That segment has been strong during the shelter-in-place period. “It’s allowed me to tread water,” Simon said.

Ron Schisler, owner of Dog House Billiards in Cotati, was less sanguine about the future for local entertainment businesses without some shakeup in state regulation.

“I think that more than half the pool rooms in the Bay Area will never reopen,” Schisler said.

Windsor Bowling Center could open safely by allowing bowlers to play on every other lane while it used its nine different air conditioning units to bring in outside air along with new sanitizing protocols, said owner James Pattison.

The concern for these businesses is that they generate most of their revenue during winter weather when there is less competition from outdoor activities. Pattison said he has been able to survive from a landlord who has worked to lower his rent obligations even as he cut off his utilities and decreased insurance coverage.

“I don’t know how much longer we can survive, but we’re going to give it a shot,” Pattison said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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