Marylanders can’t go to a movie theater yet or sit in a packed restaurant, but they can riddle their way out of an escape room, throw some hatchets or go bowling.
And these businesses feel their patrons’ experience could be just as safe of a destination as going to the grocery store.
While restaurants shifted to take-out and brick-and-mortar stores introduced online shopping at the beginning of the pandemic, indoor entertainment businesses didn’t have many options besides closing and waiting.
Steven Winder, owner of ClueIQ on Carroll Street, said the business closed for almost 100 days between March and June.
“Even though [business] was down for everybody, for us we essentially went to zero immediately,” he said. “… One of the biggest struggles for us was really not knowing how long. We didn’t know if this would be two weeks, two months, a year.”
But now ClueIQ has been open for a month. The staff had to make quite a few changes to ensure time for proper disinfecting and make room for social distancing. Instead of a room being used again 20 minutes after its last game ended, they now keep an hour between.
The main difference, Winder said, is that large groups aren’t coming in anymore.
“Instead of four couples coming out together on a Friday night to do a group outing, we’re getting just the couple by themselves, or just the family of four,” he said.
That’s also been an issue for Stumpy’s Hatchet House, an ax-throwing outlet on Wedgewood Boulevard. They used to book for parties of 20-plus people, but now find themselves catering to couples coming alone on Saturday nights, said Sarah Simpson, general manager.
“We have some people who want to book larger parties and their feedback from their friends and family is they’re not comfortable going out yet,” said Simpson. “… So we’re definitely trying to get it out there to people that we’ve got a very safe space. Even though it is indoors, it’s wide open space.”
Instead of having 10 people in each throwing pit, the business has limited capacity to six. Each pit is completely private, however, and is stocked with hand sanitizer and a disinfectant which customers can use on the axes as much as they like.
Once they are situated in the pit, customers are permitted to remove their masks. Simpson and co-owner Anna Smith consider the mask policy to be like indoor restaurant dining, where customers wear a mask when interacting with staff or using common areas, but can unmask when with their small group.
Chris Sparks, owner of Surelocked In on Market Street, said he’s had a few customers who refuse to adhere to the mask rules. Sparks, like Winder, has required masks to be worn at all times in the building, including when in the private escape room.
Sparks has had customers refuse to wear a mask at all, but has been accommodating in refunding them.
“What I tell the team is, ‘If a customer can’t puzzle through why they need to wear a mask during a pandemic, there is not a chance they can solve the actual riddles and puzzles in our game,’” Sparks said.
Sparks took a different route than many entertainment outlets did during the pandemic, and tried to expand into different kinds of services. The company began hosting online private trivia for companies, and developed “escape rooms to go” which they hope to begin distributing soon.
But other venues are a little harder to distribute — like an ax, for instance.
“It was honestly terrible because there was absolutely nothing we could do,” Simpson said. “We tried to offer, people could buy gift cards... but we really didn’t have anything to offer curbside or delivery.”
Stumpy’s was able to apply for some assistance, although many came in the forms of loans that will eventually have to be paid back. They did receive one grant from the state of Maryland that they applied for in March and just received at the beginning of July.
“So we’re just going to be playing catch-up for quite a while,” said Smith.
Winder was frustrated by the grants and loans that were available, as many seemed to cater to businesses that still had some income, like the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP does not have to be paid back and effectively becomes a grant when at least 60 percent of it is used for payroll.
But being completely closed, Winder couldn’t use it for payroll.
“For us it just sucks ... because you’re seeing a place that’s still open, so they’re using the PPP to pay for their staff and then they’re getting a grant also, while we’re just kind of sitting here paying bills with no income,” he said.
Now, it’s a matter of getting patrons to come back. All three businesses offer a privatized experience, which they believe will help people feel comfortable. ClueIQ and Surelocked In both only offer private escape rooms, meaning once you book the room, nobody else can come and purchase the remaining tickets for their time slot.
Stumpy’s is also offering “Private Axe-periences” where a minimum of 10 people can book a private session during off hours, which can span anything from a business meeting to a family getting together.
Simpson and Smith know that the perception of going to indoor entertainment venues as “dangerous” might be one of the biggest challenges. But they know they’ve created the most controlled environment they can by removing hard-to-clean surfaces and creating pathways to control any potential crowding.
And besides, safety has always been a priority.
“Already before COVID, we tell our employees, your number one job is to keep people safe. They’re throwing hatchets,” Simpson said. “And the other number one part of your job is to make it fun. So now we’ve just added to our job of keeping them safe. We were already doing that.”