Murray Entertainment Businesses Persist Despite Pandemic
Note: I initially wrote this piece for a class and liked it so much that I decided to publish it here. Enjoy, nerds.
While the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to any business, entertainment venues—deemed “nonessential” under most jurisdictions—have found it particularly difficult to bring in customers.
This phenomenon is all too evident in Murray, Kentucky, at Cheri Theatres, Corvette Lanes, Crump’s Comic Boutique, and GameStop.
Gov. Andy Beshear ordered these businesses and many others to cease operations March 25, 2020. Since reopening, they've had to actively balance safety and sustainability.
General manager Chris Hopkins shared a deeply personal account of the impact COVID-19 has had on family business Cheri Theaters since it temporarily closed down March 16.
“The theater’s been here since 1966, so 54 years,” he said. “During that 54 years, we had only been closed 7 days before that, and 3 of them were for weather-related issues from the ice storm that we had here in Murray that shut everything down for about 3 days, because we had no water or electricity. After the first few days, it was like, you know. The first Friday night I came up here that we were closed, it just about made me sick to my stomach, because everything was dark.”
The closure period was similarly demoralizing to Hopkins’s close-knit employees.
“It was a pretty emotional meeting when we had the meeting with the employees letting them know that you can’t come back to work, and we don’t know when we can tell you that you’re gonna be back to work,” he said.
Hopkins emphasized the sense of loyalty he feels toward his employees for their continued willingness to work.
“We really don’t need all the employees we’ve got, but after them doing that and coming back when they could have stayed on unemployment, it makes us feel loyal to them to keep them with a job right now,” he said.
With the shutdown eating into most of the summer, management hasn’t been able to set aside as much money as usual for slower times and remodeling.
“I knew, after a few weeks, seeing how things were looking, that this was gonna last for a while, and I knew that was gonna be devastating to us as far as putting money back for the slower times,” he said. “I mean, this is gonna affect the next year or two.”
The current struggle many independent theaters are facing is a push and pull between film studios and theater chains, Hopkins explained.
“We pretty much run at a steady 20% of normal income since June,” he said. “Of course, we had all these movies being pushed off. They have released new movies, but the big ones they keep pushing off, and all of the big theater chains, they were holding off, saying, ‘We’re not gonna open until you start putting out some big name movies.’ And the film companies were going, ‘Well, we’re not gonna put out big name movies until you start opening up.’ And so, they were kind of at a stand still, and all the small, independent theaters were kind of just stuck in the middle.”
The lapse in gift certificate sales in particular has hurt the overall business more than Hopkins initially expected.
“Usually, we have pretty steady gift certificate sales, especially on the weekends, and that’s one thing I’ve noticed that’s really gone down even more are the gift certificates,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what’s gonna happen. They may say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I wanna buy a gift certificate. They may have to close again.’”
Even the purchase of additional safety equipment has imposed some financial strain on the theater.
“Just the Plexiglas alone to put out in the concessions stand in the lobby was a thousand dollars,” he said. “A thousand dollars is a lot of money any time, but it’s even worse when you’re having to spend a thousand dollars when you haven’t had any income for 3 months and then having to invest some of that just to reopen. Not to mention all the extra cleaning supplies we had to buy. We were having trouble finding hand sanitizer. We barely got any in before we were able to open.”
Until film release schedules and moviegoer attendance revert to pre-pandemic statuses, Cheri Theaters is doing whatever possible to stay as long as possible.
“We did do the PPP loan, but we have not gotten any word back yet on if any part of that loan will be forgiven, so that’s still up in the air, which is a pretty stressful thing to know that you could be adding to your debt load if that’s not forgiven,” he said. “My father hasn’t paid himself in the last 5 months just to make sure that we can pay all the other employees.”
Customers have shown their support for the local theater by various means.
“Well, we’ve got a lot of emails, phone calls from a lot of good customers that are here all the time, and they were just saying how bad they felt for us,” he said. “There was a few weeks in May where—once things kinda started reopening, when restaurants were starting to kind of reopen back up—where we talked to the health department to make sure that we had the go ahead to sell popcorn on the weekends. We opened up Friday, Saturday and Sunday for 2 or 3 weeks, because the one thing people were saying was, ‘I sure do miss the theater popcorn.’ We even had one guy that, he comes to the movies a lot, but sometimes he’ll just stop and get an Icee, because it’s one of the few places in Murray that I can get a white cherry Icee.
“We actually had a woman come in last Friday,” he said. “Of course, you’re here every week, you see these customers coming in. I was just talking to her, and she has pretty much been at least a couple of times every week since we reopened, and I said, ‘I just appreciate your business so much, and you’ve been so loyal to us.’ Well, she goes, ‘I feel comfortable when I come here, and I always have, and I knew I would, so I didn’t hesitate to come back.’ That really makes you feel good.”
Such a flood of outreach, Hopkins asserts, is not uncommon of the Murray community.
“It’s a great town,” he said. “If you ever have a struggle, people will rally around you to help, and that’s the best thing about this town.”
To make these supportive customers that much more comfortable, Cheri Theatres has increased the scope of their cleaning.
“The first thing we did was, we took out some of our showings per day,” he said. “Normally, a movie, depending on its length, would run a minimum of fives times a day, sometimes four times, depending on if it was longer. We cut out that last show of the day so that we could space out our showings more than we normally do.
“In addition to the Plexiglas that we put out there, we’ve put hand sanitizing stations throughout the theater. The bathrooms, any high touch areas, are sanitized multiple times throughout the day. As far as the employees coming in—of course, the employees wore masks before the mask mandate—but the employees are still wearing masks in addition to the customers now since the mask mandate went into effect in July.
“In between every show, we always used to go in and sweep up and clean up any spills, but now, in addition to that, we’re going in and sanitizing any hand rails, every seat that was being used during the showing, so that’s taken a little bit more time in between shows.”
General manager Nick Leslie provided a holistic glimpse of a coronavirus-era COVID-19, from the initial closure to the eventual reopening. The venue has so far “lost about a third” of business compared to last year’s totals.
“Usually, our busiest time is when college swings back into session, and it killed us a lot,” he said. “We only have 50% capacity, so we had 18 lanes, so we only have nine lanes going at one time now, so we’re only doing half the business we were, especially on weekends when we had the whole place full.”
Regular specials like “$2 Tuesdays” are on hold due to financial infeasibility at current capacity. Saturdays remain silver lining for the business.
“Saturdays are okay, only because the college is in town,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the college, we would not probably be open at all, I would say, right now because of COVID. People don’t wanna bowl in their masks. It’s not a strenuous sport, but you do get hot and stuff like that with the masks on, so it’s kinda killed us.”
The game room is one portion of the business that has remained relatively consistent.
“No one’s ever complained about the arcade actually,” he said. “Our arcade’s actually doing okay. As far as the totals last year, it’s about average. We do anywhere between $200 to $500 in a week, and then weekends, $500 to $1,000 usually in the arcade. Which for a no-overhead—we don’t have anybody to work it—it’s a pretty good profit margin there, as far as it goes for the arcade.”
Corvette Lanes was quick to take cost-saving measures when the mandatory shutdown hit.
“When we did originally shut down, we did sell off all of the food that we had to either employees or customers that wanted to buy full cases of bulk stock or whatever we had, so that saved us some money of having to throw everything away there,” he said.
A local government grant further alleviated some of the financial blow.
“We did make sure we got the grant from the government to be able to pay for the employees when we did come back,” he said. “We were closed down for about two and a half months, I believe, so as soon as we got back, we go the government grant to help pay for payroll and overhead expenses.”
That being said, closing up shop for months at a time was not without its share of dilemmas.
“The arcade got shut down, had to be rewired,” he said. “Once you leave everything turned off for so long, it kinda just loses the system we have control for, we use for everything in here. So once you leave it off for so long and don’t use it, though, it kind of disconnects itself, so a lot of technical issues we had to deal with when we came back is from not being here.
“Bowling computer was the same way. Half the lanes, when we came back, wouldn’t turn on, because they’re not connected to the computer anymore. Their hard drives are all in the back, and you have to reboot and reinitialize all those.”
In Leslie’s opinion, owner Brandon Edmiston’s other business ventures are partially responsible for keeping Corvette Lanes afloat.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that the owner of this place has other businesses to help kinda offset the loss of business here, I don’t know that we would open so early,” he said. “June 5 was when we opened back up. We probably would’ve waited until the end of July, I think, if it wasn’t for the other businesses that he owns.”
Customers were generally understanding of the need to close the location during a global pandemic, barring some minor issues.
“We had a few complaints from the groups that we did,” he said. “We did the senior bowling league—now it’s on Tuesdays, it was on Wednesdays. They kinda wanted to still come, because it’s a very small group of people, and they’re the only ones in here to begin with, so it’s very social distanced as it is, but it’s hard for us to open back up for a group of, like, eight people one day a week during the whole shutdown. So besides the groups like that, we didn’t have any problems.”
The main concern since reopening has been patrons disregarding state-mandated health guidelines.
“We did have a few issues, opening back up, with people not wanting to wear masks,” he said. “It’s hard to enforce something, especially in this area, like that, depending on who you’re talking to. We have a lot of people who don’t wanna wear [a mask]. You’ll have some that don’t mind. As long as you wear it to the lane, it’s hard to keep track of everyone on weekends, especially wearing masks and stuff like that.
“We had to throw some people out. We’ve had to take some drastic measures, as far as it goes. We’ve had some people complain about other customers not wearing masks: ‘So and so’s not wearing their mask in the arcade.’ And it’s like, I can’t be a policeman, as far as that goes, but we try to adhere to all the current social standards that we have.”
Regardless, the staff at Corvette Lanes have taken it upon themselves to ensure as clean an environment as possible.
“You touch everything in the arcade, so it gets sprayed down once every hour,” he said. “When you get done with the bowling balls, they get left in the lane, they get sprayed down with sanitizing spray every time someone uses the lanes. All the seats, all the chairs, all the tables, all those touch screens up there at the center of the lane, they’re all wiped down with sanitizing spray. Basically, anywhere that anyone sat, touched, or whatever could be possible are wiped down when someone leaves.
“The café, as you can see, it’s big for a bowling alley café, I guess. We don’t have as much as seating as we did, but really people don’t eat over here a whole lot anyway. They come to bowl, not to just eat normally, so it didn’t really affect us, as far as that goes, as far as food serving goes. Just extra cleaning, and that’s pretty much it really. And of course, we made employees wear masks, and we had to use hand sanitizer every so often.”
“We have a high-temp dishwasher, which normally doesn’t have sanitizer in it, because the high-temp dishwasher, it gets up to 175 degrees, which kills everything. But just to be safe—you never know—we bought sanitizer to go in the dishwasher—just in case, for some reason—something got past the hot water, I guess.”
While business is still somewhat sluggish, Leslie foresees things picking up later in the year.
“I’m thinking, though, as time goes on, it gets colder outside, people are gonna be more willing to come in to a place like this and have fun, because it has been pretty nice out, which really does affect our business here,” he said. “If it’s a nice, sunny day, good for the lake, we’re not gonna be busy, almost always. If it’s a cr--py, rainy day or cold outside or snowy, we’re almost always guaranteed to get busy that day. So I think, as winter comes on, we’ll have more business, I believe.”
Owner Garrik Crump did what he could to keep his passion for comics and collectibles alive when Crump’s Comic Boutique, formerly known as G’s Comics, was down from March to May.
“We did receive a small grant from the city of Murray, which took care of a couple utility bills, but also, there was a comic fund that gave us a small loan to basically cover overhead,” he said. “My wife basically runs the shop, and it didn’t help her any, but it kept the business, what you’d say, open. Then, we had a couple of donations from customers, little, small things.
Crump considers himself “blessed” to be able to remain to open.
“We’re still feeling the effects of, because everybody else is still feeling the effects of,” he said. “We have the books, clothing, different things like that, but it’s not what you would consider necessities of life. So we’re still feeling some impact just to due our customers and potential customers feeling the impact.”
Because of financial constraints imposed by the pandemic, Crump lost touch with some of his patrons.
“Some kept in contact, seeing when we were gonna be open, but unfortunately, COVID impacts a lot of our customers and still does at this point,” he said. “You have to figure out what you need first and then go from there. We did lose some basically due to COVID and impacting their jobs and whatnot.”
Since reopening, Crump’s Comic Boutique has seen fluctuating levels of business.
“This particular past two or so weeks has been really slow, but I don’t know if I contribute all of that to COVID or just slow business,” he said. “It’s had its ups and downs, but we’re trying to stabilize and trying to get different things to get different people in.”
This includes rolling out a suite of safety initiatives.
“As far as safety, we do wear our masks, we ask other customers to wear their masks, we have hand sanitizers placed at different spots, we do Lysol and disinfect, which we’ve always done that before because this type of store, there’s a lot of touching going on,” he said. “So we’re just basically continuing the things we’ve always done, just more often.”
Store leader Abraham Gethsemane has served an integral role in implementing GameStop’s corporate pandemic policies at the Murray location, beginning with the shutdown and continuing to the present.
Gethsemane noticed early on that the pandemic had become a reality when people no longer frequented GameStop in the same capacity as they had before.
“They were starting to get afraid to get out and shop and do all that stuff,” he said. “So our customer base started dwindling and going down until—I believe it was March 22—GameStop as a whole, as a company, decided to shut down their U.S. stores to the public but still deliver.”
The cessation of in-person shopping presented unique challenges for Gethsemane and his staff, as the location did not receive new products at that time.
“Basically, all online orders were fulfilled by us, so any order that came through we fulfilled to the best of our ability,” he sid. “We kept our customer base engaged as it came to pick up the orders, you know, what’s going on and what we’re doing and all that stuff. We updated them on the status of how everything’s going and when we’re gonna reopen.”
Customers were “not happy” with the closure but understood the “serious” nature of the situation.
“A lot of them renewed their membership even though we were closed, because they wanted to continue their patronage and not miss out on the deals they were getting with their memberships, as well,” he said.
Business since reopening has been steadily improving.
“Things have picked up,” he said. “Initially, at the beginning, it took a while before we got some of the product in that we needed, but as time gradually increased, we got more and more product in. We were able to meet the needs of customers.
“It took a little bit for [customers] to figure out we were back open inside the stores, and then, after everybody found out, everything went—I won’t say back to normal operations, because this is still an ongoing pandemic, it’s not fully over yet—but we’re getting a sense of normalcy back.”
To ensure to the safety of returning guests, the Murray GameStop has adopted a number of additional cleaning practices.
“We have sanitizing stations,” he said. “We clean our counters with disinfectants, as well. The trade we take in is held for three days just to make sure that, once it gets clean and everything, we wanna just make sure that there’s nothing that lives in there. They’ve been pretty vigorous about it.
“Plus, all my staff does a daily health check when we come in for work. We have to fill it out as far as if we have the symptoms and all that stuff, and we have measures basically to take if one of the staff is experiencing symptoms, or we just escalate up and get directions as far as what to do at that point.
“But in terms of keeping the store safe, I can tell you that this store is probably one of the safest areas that you can shop in. We keep it clean. Visible, high-traffic surfaces get cleaned all the time, so it’s completely safe.”
Reporting from The Los Angeles Times suggesting that movie theaters "may not survive" the pandemic, for instance, is certainly cause for concern.
Murray’s entertainment venues persist despite the coronavirus’s continued imposition. Community support is especially crucial under the current circumstances.
Only time will tell how entertainment in general adapts to our new reality.