When the COVID-19 lockdown occurred in March, Ralph Lucius thought that surely by Memorial Day weekend he could join other local businesses in re-opening to the public.
Six months later, however, Rocket Arcade remains closed. Fed up, Lucius packed up one of his pinball machines, last Tuesday, and hauled it to Lansing where he stood at the steps of the Capitol to play it for six straight hours, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., in protest of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order that stipulates indoor entertainment venues cannot re-open yet due to the state’s ongoing effort to curb spread of coronavirus.
Arcades, such as the one owned by Lucius, are one of the few commercial businesses that remain closed due to the state’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Others include movie theaters such as the Michigan Theatre of South Haven, bowling alleys like Lakeside Entertainment Center, also in South Haven, amusement parks, climbing facilities and trampoline parks.
“I’m forced to turn business away every day to adhere to the executive order to close,” Lucius said. “I’ve been ready to re-open since May and what do I get in return for supporting Gov. Whitmer’s executive order? False hope, empty promises and increasing debt.”
After closing in March, Lucius said he spent $1,500 and all of May preparing to meet state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines in time for an anticipated Memorial Day re-opening to kick off the summer tourism season.
But while his neighboring shops began to re-open, Rocket Arcade remained closed.
“Rocket Arcade has been sidelined while watching other businesses be given permission to re-open,” Lucius said. “First retail stores, then restaurants and bars, followed by hair salons, casinos, schools, contact sports, health clubs … but still no arcades.”
Just when businesses, such as indoor arcades, are given the green light to re-open remains to be seen. When Gov. Whitmer made the decision Sept. 3 to allow indoor gyms to conduct business, people speculated arcades and other indoor entertainment venues would follow suit.
But that didn’t happen.
When asked last Tuesday when Gov. Whitmer might re-open such businesses, Deputy Press Secretary Chelsea Lewis stated in an email, “We’re currently reviewing the status of movie theaters, bowling alleys, etc. ... As the governor has previously said, ‘Going forward, we will continue to work with health experts to assess the risk associated with business sectors that remain closed. For the health and safety of our families and frontline workers, it is crucial that we proceed thoughtfully and incrementally so we can measure the effects of current actions before we take additional steps towards re-engagement.’”
Lucius said he’s puzzled why he has to remain closed because his business does not attract large crowds, like indoor movie theaters or amusement parks.
“Local arcades are by nature a micro business, yet somehow have been grouped in with much larger venues like amusement parks and casinos that can see thousands of people in a single day,” Lucius said. “Our business plan is based on an average of just over 30 customers per day or about 1,000 per month.”
Lucius has been trying to stay afloat financially by offering private rentals to individual groups of 10 or less and conducts a monthly “Pay-It-Forward” giveaway for those affected by COVID-19. Groups as small as four people can rent the arcade for $50-$75.
“If I did not start private rentals in late June, I would already be out of business,” Lucius said.
Other business venues in South Haven that remain closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, are also trying to gather in whatever revenue they can, while not violating the governor’s executive order.
Lakeside Entertainment Center’s bowling lanes may be closed to the public, but its restaurant is open. Michigan Theater offered walk-up window concession sales this summer.
But if entertainment-related venues can’t do business as normal soon, Lucius fears they’ll close for good.
“It’s the unequal playing field that frustrates me the most,” he said. “I don’t have lawyers or lobbyists to get the attention of the Governor so I can’t get special permission to open. All I have is me and my arcade games. It’s ridiculous, it’s nonsensical and I’m caught in the middle of it.”
In a letter addressed to Gov. Whitmer, Lucius wrote, “Dear Gov. Whitmer, since you are the only person who can allow me to open my business, I’m pleading with you to let me present a safe re-opening plan. And if you decide the answer is no, then at the very least contribute to my GoFundMe. I’m running out of time.”
He went on to propose to the governor that she use the state’s new COVID-19 Ambassador program to prioritize educating businesses that remain closed to safely re-open.