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.

Cheri Theatres

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.”

Corvette Lanes

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