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At 9 p.m., on March 16, everything changed.

Gallatin County ordered bars to close. So Lori and Mark Kottwitz, owners of The Bozeman Bowl, followed along and closed their bar inside the bowling alley. They closed the bowling alley, too, because they believed the two were inseparable.

“Nobody is going to come bowling if they can’t eat or drink anything,” Lori said. “Very few.”

Two months later, bars and restaurants throughout Montana are allowed to open if they adopt new practices. But bowling alleys are not. So while The Bozeman Bowl’s bar is open daily from 4 to 10 p.m., business has slowed. And a bowling alley without bowling isn’t quite the same.

“We just feel it’s weird we got left out,” Lori said. “... I don’t know, it’s kind of strange.”

When Gov. Steve Bullock announced Montana’s reopening plan, places of assembly like gyms, movie theaters and museums were included in phase two. The Kottwitzes thought bowling alleys fell in the same category. But a few weeks later, Bullock adjusted the first phase to include those three types of places. Bowling alleys were excluded and their owners were left wondering why.

While the coronavirus pandemic has altered just about every business, The Bozeman Bowl is preparing to comply with new restrictions. Its bar and casino games recently opened under new guidelines. But as the mom-and-pop business can’t use its lanes, long-term economic threats loom.

“Just want to be part of that gym and theater group,” Mark said.

Inside The Bozeman Bowl, yellow caution tape covers racks preventing anyone from taking balls. Lanes sit empty. Light reflects off the unused shiny wood.

In a back corner, the owners set up an employees’ only cleaning station. They plan for balls and shoes to be brought back there once customers are finished playing. If bowlers were required to bring their own equipment, that would also suffice for the Kottwitzes in the short-term.

The cleaning includes spraying rented shoes with Lysol, wiping borrowed balls with a disinfectant made of 70% alcohol and 30% water and sanitizing inside finger holes. Alternating available lanes could allow for 6 feet of physical distancing. Sneeze guards have been installed at the main desk.

“We’re all professionals here,” Mark said. “The last thing we want to do is create a situation.”

At restaurants, up to six people are allowed to sit at a table. At gyms, equipment is shared often.

Those businesses have increased sanitation measures and been allowed to open. Bowling alley owners said they’re willing to make mandatory changes to reopen, too. Montana Bowling Proprietors Association executive director Tom Brendgord called the situation “kind of an injustice.”

“When you look at them,” Mark said of gyms and bowling alleys, “they are similar.”

Bowling alleys will be included in phase two of Bullock’s reopening plan “due to concerns with shared equipment and because people typically gather in groups of larger than 10,” Erin Loranger, a spokesperson with the Montana governor’s office, wrote in an email.

Rod Lee, owner of Treasure Lanes in Livingston, wants a timeline for when phase two may begin. Since the state is monitoring the progress of its reopening plan as time passes, that remains elusive.

Gallatin City-County Health Department health officer Matt Kelley acknowledged similarities in bowling alleys and other open businesses. But he stressed the importance of a gradual reopening in order to avoid another shutdown.

“That means some businesses go first and some businesses don’t,” Kelley said, “and wherever you draw that line, there’s some kind of business that’s going to be on the side they’re not crazy about.”

Without a clear end point, Mark could only describe the economic effect on his business as “significantly.” The last six weeks of league seasons were cut off. Though the summer months are typically slower, the revenue generated helps the company get by until the fall.

So, Lori said, if The Bozeman Bowl can’t open within about a month, they may need to stay closed for the rest of summer.

“We just want a chance,” Mark said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.