From afar, the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Desert Strike Lanes Bowling Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, on a spring Saturday afternoon in 2021 looks like a scene from February 2020.
Located on west Bliss, today you can hear the familiar thud of 12-pound balls hitting the lanes; and big kids and little kids alike celebrating victory or bemoaning defeat as pins fall–or don’t fall. Elsewhere, moms are counting the amount of hungry military kids in their bowling party, while a food service attendant at the Strike Zone, the center’s snack bar and short-order food spot, takes notes for hot dogs.
Elsewhere in the 52-lane bowling megacenter, Soldiers banter who is the best bowler in their foursome and summer anthems from yesteryear play omnipresently on hidden speakers, making it seem like “Whoomp!” (There it is)” plays on a loop from within every square inch of the place.
But if you look more closely, with all of the face coverings, and closed-off areas where Soldiers and families once were free to mingle in, most things aren’t exactly like they were, at least for now.
“In March (2020), we heard about the COVID pandemic that was coming into the U.S. and we were bracing ourselves for the imminent shutdown that we had heard about elsewhere,” said Jannette Caswell, the Desert Strike assistant manager and 13-year Bliss FMWR employee. “Sure enough, within a couple of weeks in March, we were forced to shut down and everyone was sent home, except for essential personnel.”
Desert Strike temporarily closed, like many facilities did, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On reopening in the summer of 2020, Caswell said the facility was open for two hours, then had to close for an hour to do a wall-to-wall wipe down of the facility, before reopening for the next two-hour block.
“We had to move a lot of people around,” said Caswell. “People who worked in specific departments, they were actually forced to work on the door, check temperatures, have people sign-in, work on the exit door where they’d open it for people to come out.
“It took a couple of days when we first reopened,” said Caswell, “but people slowly started to come back. Most of it was Soldiers–the families tended to stay home–but once the word got out on how clean we were, how safe we were, and how serious we took everything, the families started to come in and bring their kids.”
These days, they don’t need to close every third hour, but the dedication to cleanliness remains. After a party (limit of five bowlers) finishes their last game, they are encouraged to not return any items like bowling shoes or house balls to their shelves. Instead, personnel will come in behind a group and sterilize all of the reusable items, as well as wipe down all of the touch points, like bowling balls, computer score keepers, arm rests, etc.
Another point to Desert Strike’s COVID mitigation approach has been the strategic use of the lanes, with adjacent lanes closed for groups of bowlers. Until restrictions on the installation are further lifted, lanes are podded together so that customers from similar groups (households, military units, barracks mates, etc.) can bowl together. Adjacent lanes will be unused to allow for social distancing from neighboring bowlers.
“We’ve sectioned off the whole house,” said Caswell. “People tend to want to gather and mingle with each other–we don’t allow that.”
The center’s current hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The menu at the Strike Zone, the facility’s snack bar and short-order kitchen, has also seen some adjustments during the pandemic to keep cooking times relatively quick. Other measures include: a dedicated entrance and separate exit, hand sanitizing stations throughout the facility, there are capacity limits for dining areas and the pro shop, and the party room remains closed as of March 20.
Caswell said, as of last month, as few as six employees are running the center some days, including the snack bar and The Pro Connection, the facility’s full-service pro shop. Desert Strikes Lanes is what is considered by the Army as a Class C Morale Facility, which means while some of their budget comes from Army coffers, facilities are expected to be profit makers to support their staffs.
“We’re working on skeleton crew for the most part,” said Caswell. “We’ve had some staff members embrace it because they appreciate the hours we can get for them. Some people have had to take second jobs as a result.”
Marita Kettle, an almost 12-year Bliss FMWR employee, with her last two-and-a-half spent behind-the-scenes as an operations assistant at Desert Strike Lanes, has recently spent many of her working hours running the front door at Desert Strike. She’s the first line for COVID mitigation as she checks temperatures and gives patrons the ground rules for staying safe and, amongst an unfortunate pandemic, she takes pride in her team’s work.
“For all of the negatives that a pandemic can bring, I view our response as a positive,” she said about Desert Strike’s holistic approach, which was named the Army’s best bowling center in 2015. “I have not heard of one spread coming from here.”
She said it’s unfortunate when the rare patron is unhappy about the precautions being made at Desert Strike, which are instructions from higher commands, but she is also glad she can offer other patrons piece of mind for however long is necessary as the pandemic continues.
“We’ve had people voice their displeasure,” Kettle said, “but no one has ever refused to have their temperature taken, or has disobeyed our setup.One gentleman actually stopped me last week and thanked us for the precautions we are taking.”
A mother-of-one, she said there are certain customers she’ll make extra-special time for when checking people in–kids.
“I’ll take my time with the kids and ask them if I can take their temperatures because I don’t want to scare them,” Kettle said of respecting their spaces as they adapt to pandemic norms. “They’ve been really cute about it and stand ready for me to take it.”
Despite the challenges behind the scenes, the Desert Strike Lanes staff continues to work to make their bowling center look as close to February 2020 as they can, while also offering a dedication to COVID-19 compliance and supporting quality of life at Fort Bliss.
“Cleaning and safety,” Caswell said. “It’s about making sure people can come in here, stay safe, spend time with their families outside of the house, and feel safe while they’re here. We’re looking forward to opening up more–being at home is tiring.”
For more information on bowling and more at Desert Strike, visit https://bliss.armymwr.com/programs/desert-strike-lanes-bowling-center or call them at 915-568-6272.