For as long as they can remember, it was Kathy and Andy Rainey's dream to own a bowling alley — together.
In 2013, after 34 years of marriage, they finally did it. They purchased the 18-lane Orillia Bowl in the small Ontario town it's named for.
"We took everything, our heart and soul, all our money," Andy said. "We sold our beautiful house to buy this place. I love it here. This is like my home."
But these are critical times for the business.
While they were recently allowed to reopen on a small scale — just 10 bowlers at a time in the 17,000-square-foot space — the Raineys are not sure their business is going to make it.
"Financially, our year has been a struggle," said Kathy, who does the books for the business. "The bowling alley has spent most of its time closed. It's been really tough."
It's the same story for thousands of businesses across the country because of COVID-19. There are estimates that as many as one in six small businesses could close permanently during the COVID-19 crisis.
Even so, on the first day they've welcomed bowlers in months, the Raineys try to stay positive and focus on their customers.
"It's nice to see the happy, smiling people coming in to have fun," Andy said.
'I'm relieved that it's back'
No group has had a harder time in the past year with the pandemic than seniors. But on this day, the Orillia Bowl seniors bowling team — an informal group of a dozen or so golden-aged bowlers — is back.
"How much I enjoy it! I really, really enjoy it," said 94-year-old Margaret Houben. "I'm looking forward to it. To get out of the house and have other people around me."
Houben has been part of the seniors bowling group at Orillia Bowl for 15 years. She has her own five-pin balls — pink, with her name engraved on them.
"I look at the ball and I say, 'now you're going to do good for me.' But I get what I get and what I don't get — OK, fine. I have lots of nice company around," she said with a laugh.
WATCH | Margaret Houben finds happiness in bowling during the pandemic:
Hang around the lanes for a while and you begin to understand what's at stake for the customers who use the bowling alley.
The moment Orillia Bowl reopened, the local community mental health support group booked its usual lanes.
After the long layoff, Dave Clark — a regular in the mental health group — admits he's a little rusty. "My two best games are 199 and 203, but that was many moons ago," he said. (A perfect score in five-pin bowling is 450).
Clark hurls a ball down the lane with his signature arm-waving delivery — think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
"During the time that there was no bowling, I missed it," Clark said. "I'm relieved that it's back."
In the next lane over is Karen Loewen. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for anyone with a mental health issue.
"It's been a terrible year. It feels great to be bowling again," Loewen said. "It just stimulates your mind, just going out there bowling."
Today the best bowler among the group is Doris Graham. She scores 175 points, but stresses that being out with the group was the most important victory.
"I was depressed in the house, and this is like a lifeline for me, bowling," said Graham, who was a mental health nurse in England.
She says when she moved to Canada in 2014 she had a breakdown. Graham has been bowling here every Wednesday since — that is, until COVID put an end to it.
"It gives me a kick, when I have the ball in my hand it gives me a kick. This is the first time I'm laughing after one year," she said.
The seniors group and the mental health bowlers say they will keep coming to the alley as long as the doors stay open.
And the Raineys are booked pretty solid with other customers too — though it's a fraction of the usual capacity, due to COVID-19 crowd limitations.
Kathy isn't sure it will be enough to save the business.
One problem is that as the weather warms up, fewer people want to bowl. Spring and summer are typically the slow season in bowling alleys.
"March and April are our busiest months of the year," Kathy said. "We lost out on them last year. We're going to lose out on them again this year."
As a result, she says the business has lost somewhere around $350,000 in sales because of the pandemic — and is $200,000 in the hole.
"It's terrible. I don't like to see those numbers," Kathy said. "They scare me. What are you going to do, you know? We just have to make it work. It's a big loss."
And she worries that as cases of COVID-19 increase in Ontario, there's no guarantee Orillia Bowl won't be shut down again.
"If we go into another lockdown for more than a couple of weeks, even a couple of weeks, it's going to be really hard for the bowling alley to keep pulling back from lockdown," Kathy said.
WATCH | Andy and Kathy Rainey refuse to give up the struggle to keep their bowling alley afloat:
Even so, Kathy and Andy believe their bowling alley will survive.
Perhaps their most loyal customer, 94-year old Margaret Houben, says that's the attitude you need in these tough times.
"Be happy that the next morning you open your eyes and you feel you can go. You're still there, you're still around," said Houben, who knows what she's talking about.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn't the first crisis she's been through.
"I've had hard times in my life, very hard times," Houben said, her face suddenly becoming stern. "I went through war-time in Germany — that is the reason we came to Canada. We left everything we had behind. Everything."
Houben says one of the things she learned escaping Nazi Germany is that better days can come. And so she dreams of a world without COVID-19.
"The first thing I want to do is go on my knees and say hallelujah, we are still alive. My family is still alive and I'm still alive … hopefully," she said.
And Houben has a dream for her favourite bowling alley, too.
"What I like to see here is the bowling alley filled from one end to the other one, everybody being happy and bowling."
Of course, if anyone wants Houben's vision to come true it's Andy and Kathy Rainey.
"We refuse to die. We're going to get out of this," Andy said. "We're going to do what we need to do. But it's been a challenge, and a stressful challenge."
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