Pressing pause: Reno bars with non-betting games dealt tough hand due to state directives
John Simpson tips back an unplugged Mrs. Pac-Man and rolls the bulky machine to the door. Nearby, rows of noisy arcade games — Tetris, Centipede, Rampage and more — bleep, bloop, buzz and hum all around him. It’s a Tuesday evening in late October and Simpson is hauling equipment out of his bar/arcade business, Press Start, located on the south end of Reno’s Midtown district.
“These are big and heavy and hard to move,” Simpson says, muffled by a video game-themed face covering.
Lining the walls of the roughly 4,000-square-foot space are about 30 more video games and a dozen pinball machines, idling on their home screens, hungry to be fed quarters by nostalgic gamers. The glowing machines, however, will soon be powered down and pushed into storage for an indefinite period of time.
Due to a combination of the state’s COVID-19 directives and the pandemic’s impacts on revenue, Press Start was forced to press pause in early October. The bar/arcade had been reopened for two weeks when Simpson was told by the city of Reno code enforcement his business was in violation of the state’s COVID guidelines.
In a nutshell, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive says bars are only allowed to operate games that are regulated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
In other words, only games linked to betting — meaning Nevada’s big casinos can play on while small bars with interactive gaming — from arcade games to billiards to darts — have to follow a different set of rules.
Simpson said he was told by the city he could run as either a bar or an arcade, but not both at the same time.
‘THERE’S NO DIFFERENCE’
Noting he worked hard to follow all of the COVID safety measures, Simpson said he would understand if there was a “scientific reason” for not being allowed to serve up drinks and games at the same time.
Knowing that casinos and bars with video slots down the road are able to keep their gaming business alive makes it an especially tough pill for him to swallow.
“There’s no difference between a slot machine and a video game,” Simpson said. “They’re screens with buttons. So, when you’re told the big industry gets to keep playing, and you got to go when you’re just a little guy, it’s not a good feeling. It’s been a tough enough road.”
When Washoe County bars were shut down over the summer to slow the spread of COVID-19, Simpson said he tried to run as just an arcade in July. Despite successfully bringing in a decent number of families and gamers while at half capacity, Simpson realized he needed both revenue streams to stay afloat.
“When we ran as an arcade only, we still lost money,” Simpson said. “And there’s a reason you don’t see arcades around anymore. They don’t make money. You need both (a bar and arcade). Being told to pick one is like being told to pick neither.”
In fact, when Simpson was delivered the news he had to pick one or close shop, he said he considered pulling the plug on Press Start for good. Further complicating matters, the building Press Start occupies — 1413 S. Virginia St. — was recently sold to a medical group.
“That night they came to shut us down, it was pretty sad,” said Simpson, who shared the news on Facebook with a photo of the Press Start sign with a red “x” across it. “It was the third time we were shut down (since the pandemic). I thought, ‘where do we go from here?’ I can’t even open my business and the building’s been sold. I just didn’t see a way forward.”
GETTING A FRESH START
Days later, Simpson saw light at the end of the tunnel when he noticed his Facebook post was getting an increasing amount of attention. In less than a month, the post had nearly 400 comments and 350 shares.
“It was a little overwhelming,” he said. “I thought, wow, I guess people do want this.”
Inspired, Simpson found a different, bigger building in Midtown for Press Start to eventually relocate to.
The business has until Dec. 8 to clear out all its pinball machines, video games and more from its current location. Factoring in permitting, construction, move-in and set-up, Simpson said it could take up to six months before Press Start is able to reboot in its new site.
He said he’s not able to disclose the location since the permitting process is not finished.
With help from the city, Press Start also received a $12,000 CARES Act grant. Moreover, Simpson launched a GoFundMe campaign to help with moving costs. The fundraiser, which has a $20,000 goal, has pulled in close to $9,000 through October.
“A lot of support has rallied behind us,” Simpson said. “It’s just video games and beer. But it’s the little stuff like this that makes the community. It’s not just big box stores and giant bar venues. It’s the little shops that make it.”
‘IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE’
On the north end of midtown, another one of those small businesses handcuffed by Nevada’s COVID directive is the Glass Die, a board game bar located off Holcomb Avenue.
Jeff Carter, the shop’s owner, was also told his business was in violation for serving beer and having interactive board gameplay at the same time.
Carter said he saw the writing on the wall when he heard Press Start had been shut down four days prior. Since the Glass Die makes most of its money from beer sales, Carter didn’t have to think twice when given the option of choosing to run a bar or a board game room.
“Even if I only get 10 regulars who come by and want to support us and you drink a couple pints, that’s better than being closed,” said Carter, who is also able to continue selling board games as retail.
Still, Carter feels the state’s guidelines are “too broad” and too big of a hurdle for businesses like his and Press Start. After all, due to COVID restrictions and shutdowns, the Glass Die’s annual revenue is down 50% compared to last year, Carter said.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Carter said. “I think the state should just simplify the mandate to the extent of it was just capacity and spacing and that’s all you need to follow. It doesn’t need to be eight extra lines of nonsense.”
What’s more, the holiday season, November-December, is the board game bar’s busiest time of year. All told, the Glass Die typically pulls in roughly 20-25% of its annual revenue over the holidays.
Unless directives change and the shop can bring back interactive gaming, that won’t be the case this year.
“We can’t sustainably have this be a business model to break even,” said Carter, noting the Glass Die also received a $12,000 CARES Act grant with the help of the city. “It’s too difficult. The margins are tough. Now, making $200 a day is the threshold, where it used to be making $1,000 a day.
“I don’t know what our busy season looks like if we can’t play games.”
Construction could begin next year and require about 500 to 600 workers, with a permanent workforce starting at 150 to 200 people with potential to expand.