Owners of fitness centers in the Brainerd lakes area may feel like they’re running on the treadmill — not getting anywhere.
Fitness centers across Minnesota shut down March 17 for three months, then reopened to find out they have to close their doors again. Gov. Tim Walz made the announcement Wednesday, Nov. 18, ordering fitness centers to close before midnight Friday. Brainerd/Baxter gyms closing include Brainerd Family YMCA and Planet Fitness, both in Brainerd; Takedown Gym, FitQuest Athletic Club and CrossFit Grow, all in Baxter; and Anytime Fitness in Brainerd and Baxter.
Jeremy Pollock, owner of Anytime Fitness in Brainerd, said the fitness center has not recovered from the first shutdown in March. Anytime Fitness lost about 30% of its members who never came back.
“We lost a ton from the first shutdown and then it never really recovered,” Pollock said. “And this one is gonna be really bad because normally this is the time of year when we start our busy season. Summer was bad, but summer is our slow season typically. This is the time when we would start ramping up and ... when things really start to get busy for people wanting to start exercising in the gym and we get new memberships as people making New Year's resolutions and everything else.”
Pollock said they have a lot of older members who are on a fitness plan where they pay only when they visit the gym, which is something they aren’t doing during the pandemic.
“Our members are frustrated as you can see from their comments in our Facebook post,” Pollock said. Anytime Fitness in Brainerd posted on its Facebook page, making the case gyms should remain open.
“CONCLUSION: Health clubs are NOT the problem, THEY ARE THE SOLUTION to maintaining public health,” the post stated. “They are, in fact, the safest environments people may visit as compared with other forms of retail, entertainment, or any other place, at this time.
“We intend to do all we can to remain open to serve you.”
The post also stated if members agreed with keeping Anytime Fitness open they should contact the governor.
The post claimed there were 48 reported outbreaks with 747 total cases originating from fitness centers out of all the cases reported in the state. While these figures were accurate based on the Minnesota Department of Health’s most recent restaurant and social outbreak summary released Nov. 13, it isn’t necessarily accurate to say these are the only cases associated with fitness centers. The outbreak statistics don’t account for smaller numbers of cases associated with fitness centers that might not have reached the threshold to be considered an outbreak, nor do they include employee-only outbreaks or any secondary cases, which would be further transmission from these cases to household members, co-workers or others.
During a Wednesday night address, Walz said the reimposed restrictions were intended to curb the virus, which is spreading exponentially across the state and putting immense pressure on the health care system. He noted the affected businesses were areas in which people tended to congregate, and they were those over which there could be some control. Walz implored Minnesotans to also avoid private gatherings of any kind with people outside of one’s household. During Thursday’s press briefing, a number of health care leaders in the state spoke in support of Walz’s restrictions.
“Gyms, fitness centers, and exercise studios also need to dial back their operations,” the executive order states. “ … The science shows us that exercise leads to higher levels of exertion and exhalation — often by individuals who are not wearing masks — greatly increasing the amount of airborne respiratory aerosol droplets that can carry COVID-19.”
Walz said Wednesday he knows the restrictions aren’t easy or even fair.
“But it’s a sacrifice that we need to make,” Walz said. “If we don’t do that and we continue this spread we will with absolute certainty put our hospitals at risk and those that need the care as well as the care providers.”
Walz spoke directly to small business owners who are feeling the pain of the executive order.
"To those small business owners, we need our federal partners to step up and provide the relief necessary. You are doing a public service beyond anything that should be ever asked of you. By closing your doors and putting your financial well-being at risk, you are protecting the lives of your neighbors," Walz said Wednesday, adding a stimulus package is needed that provides small business with help.
Hard times for local businesses
Pollock said shutting their doors is tough not only on him and the three staff members — Rick Bartkowitz, Mark Fussy and Laurie Miller — but also for their members. He said many of them finally got back on their routine after the first shutdown.
“It’s winter and people already are depressed because of COVID and now they’re like, you’re taking the gym away from me,” Pollock said of his members. “Our members ... are the type of people who come to the gym to work out, not to work out outside. They come to the gym as it’s part of the camaraderie. Our personal trainers help and motivate our members to keep coming back, to keep people in our community healthy. Then when you’re just stuck at home, you can’t have people over, I mean the gym is the one outlet for people and unfortunately, the gyms should be the last place to be shut down.”
Joan Peterson, owner of FitQuest Athletic Club north of Baxter, said having to close the fitness center down — now twice — is tough financially as well as emotionally. She said the first time they were shut down they had a lot of membership cancellations and she did not charge people for their monthly memberships, which meant no income coming into the business.
“A lot of my members are SilverSneakers (adults age 65 and older), and only 10% of them came back right away,” Peterson said. “So, income wise, it was huge. I started to recover a little bit because basketball teams were coming here to practice because they had no gym time at the schools.”
When fitness centers opened back up in the summer after the first shutdown, they were still struggling.
“When you’re closed for three solid months, people who did workout found a way to do it at home, or found other options, or they quit,” Peterson said. “When people stop working out they lose their (ambition) and it takes a while to create a habit, it doesn't take long to lose that habit, so, you know, it was just a triple-edged sword. ... It’s like it couldn't get any worse (until it did).”
Peterson said she has not had any of her active members tell her they tested positive for COVID-19 since the gym reopened in June.
“This is a place to keep people healthy, and like I’ve said a hundred times, or a thousand times that you lose me when you can go to Walmart, Menards, or any of the big box stores and be around hundreds of people, but you can’t come in here and this is a very spacious gym,” Peterson said. “You can stay apart. This is keeping people healthy. If anybody should have come down with the virus, it would have been me because I've been here 55 hours a week. And I'm fine.
“And plus — they're not only taking away my rights of running a business but they're taking away everybody else's right to choose whether to come in or not. You know, if you don't feel safe and you don't want to come in you don’t come in, but now they're taking away that choice and that is not right. It's not right to do this to a place that keeps people healthy ... a lot of people consider a health club essential to their health.”
Peterson said don’t get her wrong, she believes the coronavirus is serious and has been impacted by it like anyone else.
“Some people are dying from the coronavirus, including my uncle,” Peterson said. “It's very sad. it's terrible, nobody wants to lose anybody. But the death rate is very small.”
Joe Ciardelli, manager at Takedown Gym north of Baxter, said in the fitness world they are a tight family and everyone will get through these tough times.
“We will do what we always do,” Ciardelli said. “Everybody's just gonna have to buckle down a little bit more and follow our rules and do what we're supposed to do so we can get through this and come out stronger and better on the other side.”
Ciardelli said Takedown Gym closes at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, and then they will lock the doors until they get the go-ahead to reopen by the state. Ciardelli said he has applied for as much funding as he can that is offered to businesses during the pandemic.
All the fitness center owners who were interviewed said they applied for the small business loans. Peterson said the loan helped, but the part she could use for her expenses only covered about a third of her cost. Pollock said the loan barely covered his rent. The loan was $10,000 and his monthly rent is $8,000 and he was shut down for three months.
Ciardelli, like all the fitness center owners, said they feel for their members, who work hard to try to stay fit and healthy in today’s tough world.
“Minnesotans, our members, have always been a hearty bunch, so we're just going to have to bundle up a little more and come up with creative ways where we can interact and stay healthy and stay fit,” Ciardelli said. “We have a fairly solid plan in place where we're going to do as much as we can virtually. So our members will have access to our library of online classes.”