With millions of Americans unemployed, several businesses have closed up shop in a tough economy brought on by COVID-19. And that includes stores on a scale from nationwide retail chains to mom and pop shops. Some industries were in decline before the pandemic hit America and now have additional hurdles to overcome while keeping the lights on.
Just hearing the word arcade will immediately elicit the familiar sounds for some, from video game music blaring across dozens of machines to the sounds of quarters dropping into metal coin slots.
And yet, arcades aren’t as prominent as they were during the late 1980s with popular games like Pac-Man and Centipede. With the popularity of home gaming consoles, a number of arcades have closed their doors over the last couple decades. But Arkansas still has arcades operating across The Natural State.
Some bowling alleys and outdoor fun centers keep arcade games on hand to offer additional entertainment options. Then there are big chains that offer dinner and games where you can win tickets to exchange for prizes like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s. But there are also still standalone arcades operating in Arkansas.
Jesus Garcia owns The Box Arcade in Van Buren, just outside of Fort Smith. The business opened on December 7, 2019. And $10 allows customers to play all the games they want. No quarters necessary. All machines are set to free-to-play, according to the arcade’s Facebook page.
It wasn’t but a few months later the first patient in Arkansas tested positive for COVID-19. On March 19, the arcade announced it was closed until further notice following new regulations from state health officials.
Weeks later as businesses across the state started to restart in phases, Garcia said one of the hardest parts about preparing to get the arcade going again was keeping up with new guidelines from health officials.
“The hardest thing was probably coming up with ways to adapt to [the] change of pace that the arcade wouldn’t be as busy, and new guidelines would have to be followed,” the arcade owner said.
And, of course, with social distancing recommendations still in place, Garcia said customers are wary to come back now that the arcade is open.
“It’s understandable that an arcade is an indoor venue and not an ideal place to social distance during these times,” he said.
When it comes to keeping machines sanitized, Garcia said that has not been too much of a challenge. The arcade owner said he bought an 80-percent alcohol solution and asks customers to disinfect each machine before use.
This is necessary because Garcia said he can’t keep an eye on every single machine.
As business gets going again, Garcia said the number one thing he wants customers to know is he’s working hard to keep the arcade accessible to the public in a safe and responsible manner.
“Hopefully we can all work together and get through this together,” he said.
Rob O’Nale is an artist who lives in Greenwood, not far from The Box Arcade. He has a history of frequenting arcades and said his favorite is Vortex Arcade in Sherwood. So far, fears of COVID-19 and scheduling difficulties have kept him from trying The Box Arcade.
O’Nale said he wishes he could visit arcades more often.
“It’s a great way to just get away to a happy place, and it’s cheap. You can spend a little bit of money and enjoy a full day of gaming, really learn the different machines and how they work. It’s like touching history,” he said.
With older family members in his household that have health issues, O’Nale said he wears a mask anytime he’s out in public.
“I would love to go if it was during a time when not many other people were there, but even with precautions, it’s hard to guarantee you’ll be completely safe. I try to keep that in mind when I’m going out,” the artist said.
As for what arcade owners can do to make O’Nale feel safe, the artist said they can provide hand sanitizer, clean the machines and limit how many people are allowed inside at one time.
“I can’t wait to be able to do things like this again, but it’s not worth the risk with the second wave hitting now,” he said.
Aaron Caldwell is a Russellville native who now lives up near Kansas City. The former Arkansan said he used to visit arcades every month.
“I used to go every month or so. I am not big on crowds, so it’s hard to force myself to go anymore. I always have a blast when I do [go] though,” he said.
In Kansas City, Caldwell said there are a number of bars that also have arcade games.
“It is a two birds [with] one stone thing,” he said.
Caldwell said he does not plan on visiting any arcades at the moment because he has a wife and kid whose health he has to consider.
“If it was just me still? Yeah, I’d probably go. Now I have a wife and a kid. I just don’t think I can justify it,” he said.
Right now, Caldwell said he does not think there’s anything an arcade owner could do to make him feel safe as a customer.
“The whole idea of an arcade is that you are close to another player, and you are hitting buttons. Then the next players are hitting those same buttons,” Caldwell said. “They would have to have someone at each machine wiping it down and probably limit [it] to one person at a time. I just don’t see it as viable.”
In addition to the arcades mentioned in Van Buren and Sherwood, a business in Russellville called The Garage Arcade is working on setting up a new location, according to videos and photos posted on its Facebook page. And Conway has Flashback Pinball Arcade, which is open as of the end of May.