Business

Judge rules dozens of NC bowling alleys can reopen amid pandemic

Posted July 7

— A state judge ruled Tuesday that dozens of bowling alleys across North Carolina can reopen immediately, despite state orders that have kept them closed for more than three months to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The Bowling Proprietors Association of the Carolinas and Georgia sued Gov. Roy Cooper last month, claiming that his pandemic-related restrictions unfairly kept bowling alleys closed while allowing other businesses to reopen and operate under strict social distancing and cleaning guidelines.

Special Superior Court Judge James Gale agreed, ruling that Cooper "has no reasonable basis to continue to treat bowling alleys differently than businesses sharing common risks which he has allowed to reopen during Phase 2."

The state Attorney General's Office has filed a motion to stay Gale's ruling pending an appeal.

"Hospitalizations and positive cases are reaching record highs while the governor works to get schools open and prevent the state from going backward on restrictions. The governor will immediately appeal this ruling that harms both of these efforts," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement.

"The governor's inconsistent approach to closing businesses has been unfair, inequitable and thus illegal from the start," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement. "I continue to urge the governor to produce a plan for all North Carolina companies, to communicate that plan and to help businesses comply with consistent protocols so they may safely operate."

Bowling alleys were among the businesses that expected to reopen in late May, when Cooper moved the state into the second phase of a three-part program to resume business and social activities during the pandemic. But the governor cited increasing coronavirus caseloads when he scaled back on his Phase 2 plans, leaving bowling alleys, gyms, bars and other businesses closed.

Gale determined that bowling alleys pose no more risk than restaurants, swimming pools and other businesses that were allowed to open under Phase 2.

"In fact, the governor was unable to point to any single instance where a COVID-19 infection has been reported to have been traced to bowling," he wrote in his 33-page ruling.

Cooper has extended Phase 2 until at least July 17, saying the number of infections and hospitalizations in North Carolina continues to rise. Gale said those trends cannot be tied to bowling alleys and that continued closure would represent irreparable harm to the owners.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of Cooper's executive order for members of the Bowling Proprietors Association – the group's attorney says there are 75 in North Carolina – as long as the bowling alleys follow a set of guidelines put together by the association:

  • All bowlers would be required to wear masks.
  • Occupancy would be limited to 50 percent of capacity, and each group of bowlers would be separated by an empty lane on either side.
  • Rental shoes would be sanitized after each use.
  • Bowling balls cannot be shared by anyone other than family members and would be sanitized after each use.
  • Hand sanitizer stations would be set up throughout each facility.
  • High-touch areas would be wiped down between each group of bowlers and extensively cleaned once daily.
  • All employees would have their health screened before their shifts.
  • Signs, partitions and other efforts would used to promote social distancing and reduce groups from congregating.

"We’re excited to get back to bowling. We feel it’s a long time coming," said Brandon Wilder, program coordinator for Buffaloe Lanes in north Raleigh.

Even at half-capacity, Wilder said 300 people could bowl at Buffaloe Lanes.

"We feel like we can space people out way better than a grocery store can make people walk the right way down an aisle," he said. "It is going to be the cleanest time you’ll ever be in a bowling center, I promise that."

Lawmakers passed legislation last month that would have allowed bowling alleys to reopen, but Cooper vetoed the bill last week.

Bar owners and gym owners also have challenged Cooper's shutdown orders in court, but judges have ruled against them so far.

WRAL News multimedia journalist Joe Fisher contributed to this report.