I wish you could join me there
“Oh, Miss Sara!”
I turned around at the urgency of the receptionist’s voice. I was laden with bags, hustling toward the health club’s double glass doors to exit. But I paused at Lilly’s voice.
“Would you like me to zip your dress up the rest of the way?”
I had forgotten that I’d failed to zip my dress despite my best efforts to enlist both arms — one to pull the dress lower on my back, one to pull the zipper higher.
“I miss my locker room sisters!” I whined. “They aren’t here to help me get dressed. Yes, please zip me. And thank you!”
It was the third time that morning I was verbally reminded that Connie, my workout partner and faithful dress zipperer, had not returned to the gym since COVID-19 frightened the doors closed for two months. It reopened in mid-May, but many members still haven’t returned.
As I had walked through the gym earlier to get to the machine I needed, Daryl — one of the X-Force personal trainers — stopped me.
“Have you heard from Connie lately?” he asked. Before the pandemic, she and I had made a point of chatting with Daryl when he was between clients and we were between machines.
I admitted I hadn’t. Our communications, so urgent when the coronavirus first kept us away from the gym, had calmed of late. I told him I would connect with her and give him an update.
Moments later Linda, one of the locker room sisterhood who I now saw only on the gym floor, called to me as she stretched her hamstrings.
“How’s Connie doing?” she asked. I told her our friend had “comorbidities” that prevented her from returning to the health club.
That surprised Linda. We don’t think of Connie as having “comorbidities.” She is tough, old enough to retire but too feisty to stop work — and too dedicated to stop coming to the health club for anything but a pandemic. She had worked out through multiple surgeries and even breast cancer treatments. A total knee replacement kept her away only until her doctor cleared her to drive.
“Well, tell her I said hello.”
I will tell her we all miss her, not just because I need help zipping my dresses.
The gym is a safer place
COVID-19 has made me fatter but more flexible. When the stay-at-home order closed the gym, I flexed my routine. I used my husband’s stair climber and my formerly dusty Pilates reformer. I learned how to access Amazon Prime videos on the TV and attempted yoga videos. Instead of swimming, I walked. Instead of lifting weights, I lifted my body weight (and managed to increase that incrementally…)
Therefore, I was thankful when my gym reopened. The owner had taken the virus seriously and gone to great lengths to make the gym safe so it could reopen. What’s more, it had gone to great lengths to make members feel safe.
These are some of the safety measures the gym has employed:
- increased the number of hand sanitizer units throughout the gym
- installed “Wash Guard,” a hand sanitizer foam that gives you up to four hours of protection
- increased the number of gym wipe canisters with antibacterial/antivirus wipes
- added Air Pear fans with sanitizing UV light that kills 99 percent of all airborne germs
- added UV light fixtures to all major AC ducts to kills germs and viruses
- added NanoSeptic Surface Cleaners to door handles throughout the gym to kill 99 percent of germs for 21 days
- purchased electrostatic sprayers and solution to disinfect equipment
Why opening the gym was important
Ironically, the gym closed — and the gym reopened — for the same reason: our health. (Of course, the gym shut down because the government shut it down, but the idea was to flatten the curve, slow the spread, and, we hoped, preserve the health of many.)
But our gym owner — a small-business owner — recognized the importance of exercise in our overall health. He recognized the importance of opening the gym for the overall health of his business, too.
Even so, Joe graciously froze memberships so no one had to pay a monthly fee while the gym was closed. More generously, he didn’t charge members the first month the gym reopened if they didn’t personally feel they could return safely and now allows them to freeze or make their membership inactive, though those details vary.
My friend Connie and many others have health concerns that make a return to the club riskier than it is for me. But returning has its benefits, too.
“Let’s talk about why we really exist,” said Joe Cirulli, CEO, founder, and owner of Gainesville Health & Fitness, in a video he posted during the shutdown.
“It’s not about hand sanitizers and electrostatic cleaners. The most important factor in fighting any kind of disease is your diet, exercise, sleep, water, and stress reduction…
“Exercise is our great source of building immunity,” Joe continued. “It strengthens our heart and lungs. It improves our respiration, which is so critical now. It builds our muscular system that improves our bodies way beyond the outward physical changes. It helps you burn off fat — so important at this time, since obesity is one of the leading risk factors during this pandemic.”
Joe said he conferred with gyms across the globe to get ideas and learn best practices. He spent more than $120,000 on sanitation upgrades, created videos explaining those upgrades, used social media, and email communications — as well as signage throughout the gym — to educate his clients.
He is also there, working out with his workout partners, along with us members.
It still isn’t back to normal
The gym opened slowly, first with limited hours and no classes. I arrived early and waited in line with many, many others — six feet apart, of course — those first weeks. I was there when Joe approached the line of us waiting in the dark, thanking us for being there, reminding us of all the club had done to ensure our safety, and telling us how we could help.
Not the least of which was to come only when we were healthy, to keep our distance, to clean the machines we touched — and be advocates of the club because he was being attacked by some people in the media for opening his business.
I cried that first day in line, I admit. Between my mask and the darkness of that first morning, I easily concealed my tears as Joe talked about all the club had done to make it safe and how he was being attacked for opening despite all that effort.
Though our club seems large — and Joe has three of them in town — I realized that this club, this so-essential part of my daily practice — is a small business, just as at risk as are so many other small businesses forced to shutter or gravely adjust their practices due to the global pandemic.
Though the club claims it is “99 percent back to normal,” it’s not. The club is strewn with signage and large banners to remind us to keep six feet apart. Receptionists make sure members wear masks as they enter and exit. We have touchless check-in systems. Stickers staggered in six-feet increments on the floor show us where to stand. Class sizes are limited.
Staff uses the loudspeaker a couple of times an hour to remind us to wipe down our machines and equipment — to help keep the club open. The threat of another shutdown compels me to clean and take great care of myself and those around me.
Classes have resumed, but the ones I attended pre-COVID such as my favorite yoga class, spinning, or aqua aerobics aren’t among them. Not all teachers are comfortable coming back, Joe told me.
Many members aren’t either. The pool is crowded but not with the “regulars” in 2020 BC (Before COVID-19). The locker room is a virtual ghost town, but as it’s difficult to wear a face mask as I exit the shower and get dressed, I’m thankful the usual crush of women aren’t fighting me for space on the benches.
Certainly, the gym is cleaner than it’s ever been. No one is working or exercising visibly sick. Everyone is wearing a mask. The staff members wipe down the machines in healthy time increments — whether they’ve been used or not. Because we are the ones who want to keep the club open, we are doing our part.
I’m ‘sorry not sorry’ you haven’t returned
I miss my friends, Connie most of all. People I saw almost daily in the pool — Phoebe, Jane, Anne, Jenny, and others — I now see never. My favorite yoga instructor has failed to return. The treadmills and elliptical machines are largely empty; the tape to block machines to maintain 6-foot distances not really needed.
I haven’t seen the “please wait outside until the instructor invites you inside” sign blocking the doors to the exercise room in recent weeks — because members aren’t flocking to classes.
Despite the low population numbers, more staff are visible, constantly wiping down machines and anything we might touch — and members are cleaning what they touch as well. I look up into the fans and see the ultraviolet light bulbs there to kill germs. I see bins of sanitizing wipes everywhere I look. I feel safe.
While I don’t miss waiting in line for showers, I miss the bubbly chatter and even the inevitable realization that the locker I’d chosen was blocked by someone’s body or stuff. I miss complaining about the repetitive music piped into the locker room or how difficult it was to find a parking spot.
I miss normal. I miss you. I wonder how Joe can keep the doors open if members aren’t coming and if members aren’t paying.
But I understand why you’re not here. COVID-19 is scary, quite dangerous to some individuals, and I would hate for you to contract the virus because you’d been exposed while at the gym.
Honestly, fewer people at the gym make me feel safer there. So I’m sorry not sorry you’re not here. But it’s not the same without you. It’s not the same anywhere, actually.
But I am thankful for all the efforts this gym owner and his staff are making to get to 99 percent normal. And today I’m especially thankful for the young lady who was kind and bold enough to stop me from exiting the gym half-zipped.