For some avid players, pinball can be a full-body experience.
But with the latest COVID-related restrictions on Minnesota bars and restaurants banning “social games” like darts and pool, even pinball is getting a makeover.
Since it reopened mid-June, Tilt Pinball Bar in Minneapolis has set up sanitizing stations with paper towels and spray bottles. It also has installed hand-sanitizer dispensers, and signs instruct guests to clean their machines before and after each use. Staffers roam the room and spray the games down. To social-distance, guests are encouraged not to use the machine next to an active player.
But after the latest move from Gov. Tim Walz to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Tilt has adapted yet again. Now, you’ll find stools in front of each machine — guests have to play pinball sitting down.
Tilt’s dilemma is shared by other arcade bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities, which are weathering multiple challenges. Like regular restaurants, they are indoor gathering spaces that have to comply with state and city rules to keep customers and staff safe. But they are also places that come alive with the dings and whirs of button-powered video games, the whooshes of mini golf clubs, and with the chatter of friends gathering for an afternoon or evening of escapism.
A cooling trend
Fun is the first thing on the menu at places like these. But at a time when fun comes with a side of risk and danger, how does an arcade survive a pandemic?
Adapting “isn’t an easy feat,” said Tilt owner John Galvin. And even when arcade bars figure it out, “there will seemingly be a lingering cautiousness from most people” to actually go out and play.
It’s a long way from just a couple of years ago, when it seemed “eatertainment” venues were opening up everywhere. There were new ax-throwing bars, burger joints with big-screens for Fortnite, a lounge set up like a ’90s basement rec room with Super Mario on the TV. That hot trend has cooled.
“I can definitely tell you that anybody that was thinking of opening something similar to us is putting those plans on hold,” said Rob Clapp, owner of Can Can Wonderland.
The circuslike amusement park in a wacky St. Paul basement reopened this month after sitting dormant since March.
“My gut told me that it was going to be an uphill battle to get people to want to come indoors during the spring and summer months,” Clapp said. So he aimed for the fall, and spent a month reconfiguring the space. Machines are spread 6 feet apart, with seats. Clapp invested in a bipolar ionization system for the HVAC. There are now 20 sanitizing stations with masks, gloves and wipes. And staffers walk around and clean empty machines. All transactions are touchless and cashless. Where visitors sometimes had to wait inside for hours to play mini golf, now tee times can be reserved in advance.
But perhaps the biggest change of all is the capacity. The cavernous 30,000-square-foot space used to hold 1,000. Now, it’s down to just 150 guests at a time.
“We’re hoping that people just need a reprieve from everything that’s going on,” Clapp said. “We’ve always been a place that allows our guests some escapism. Before COVID, the world was challenging and full of reasons to want to get away. Now, it’s obviously magnified.”
Capacity remains zero at Lowertown St. Paul’s Ox Cart Arcade & Rooftop.
“Once COVID hit, we knew that we would be one of the first ones to close and one of the last concepts to open,” said chef and managing partner Justin Sutherland.
“Such high-touch things, and close proximitiy — I couldn’t figure out a profitable way around managing that,” Sutherland said. “It seems like a logistical nightmare.”
Sutherland is waiting to see what new restrictions, if any, will come from the state this winter as he considers Ox Cart’s future. “There’s talk of reopening it not as an arcade, just going back to a bar,” he said.
Taking a chance on fun
But Jeff Brown sees the COVID era as an opportunity. His Victoria Burrow in Carver County made waves in 2018 as Minnesota’s first bar where you could have a drink and throw an ax.
Now, he’s behind the Fair on 4, a sprawling new State Fair-themed entertainment eatery on the fourth floor of the Mall of America that’s slated to open in time for the holiday shopping season.
The restaurant with a retro arcade and multilevel go-kart track was in talks to replace the last tenant, Smaaash, since last fall, but it only became official after the pandemic was already in motion, requiring a few tweaks to the plan. Brown is installing ionic static cleaning guns, the kinds used to sterilize airplanes, to wipe down the go-karts after every use. Riders will wear helmets with face shields, and ax-throwers will be required to mask up. And at 35,000 square feet, the state-allowed capacity of 250 people can fit comfortably.
It’s Brown’s opinion that the trend of “eatertainment” is going to continue its pre-COVID rise.
“We all have dark memories of being stuck in our homes for the last eight months,” he said. “I think we’re providing a place for people to get their fix of going out and enjoying themselves. When everybody else is closing, we’re opening.”