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Tucson gyms jump at opportunity to re-open while others take slower approach
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Tucson gyms jump at opportunity to re-open while others take slower approach

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Ducey distributes one-fourth of state federal relief money to locals series

Less than 24 hours after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifted coronavirus restrictions that closed gyms for two months, a Tucson fitness center launched its first class, bright and early.

The 4:30 a.m. start time at Psychosomatic Evolution didn’t deter two women from showing up for a weightlifting class Wednesday morning.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, May 28: Here's what we know

The class at the boutique gym on South 12th Avenue was previously attended by about six women, but owner Amanda Walker wants to keep the classes to two or three people for the time being.

Hoping for a mid-May reopening, Walker was ready to go. Her clients were ready, too, heading straight for the hand sanitizer. There were no high-fives, and personal trainers gave only verbal instructions to adjust movements.

Clients were asked if they have been sick, and staff is armed with a thermometer, just in case. Patrons are wiping down equipment between uses followed by staff sanitizing everything — a double whammy, Walker says.

“I think the worst thing that could happen at anybody’s gym would be if the customers were upset, but luckily our customers are great,” Walker says. “They’re excited that we’re open. They’re wanting to do anything they can to make sure that we stay open, that everyone stays safe and healthy.”

For now, following the governor’s guidance, Walker is asking people who are in at-risk groups not to come in, though like many gyms they are offering online options. The children’s fitness classes have not resumed yet, but Walker says she will watch the guidelines and the number of coronavirus cases to decide when to ramp up classes.

For small business owners like Walker, the closure was extremely hard. A new business, a year old in June, they almost broke even for the first time in March, right before they closed their doors

“I’m not even going to sugar-coat it,” she says. “It really hit us hard. We were really worried about the bills. Unfortunately, nobody really cares that you have bills. You know, the rent still needs to be paid. The electricity still needs to be paid, even though no one’s there.”

At CrossFit Milo, which plans to open Saturday, owners Kare and Alan Williams worked to keep connected with clients, renting equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells out during the closure.

That equipment is being returned and has been subject to diligent cleaning, Kare Williams said.

“We’ve had a great response of people wanting to come back; we’re excited,” Alan Williams said.

Over the last two months, Danny Sawaya, owner of Tucson Strength, saw other gyms close for good and worried the same would happen to the business he has been building for 10 years.

“There are a lot of gyms not reopening,” he says. “So there were a lot of scary moments for us but we’ve seemed to kind of made it through the first phase of this. Now it’s time to rebuild.”

Sawaya used the time to space equipment 6 feet apart. They put tape on the ground around the free weights to encourage social distancing. More hand-sanitizer stations were added as were supplies to wipe down equipment. The number of classes were reduced and employees are wearing masks during personal training sessions and in close-quarter situations.

But the future remains uncertain. An Arizona coronavirus modeling team that is partnering with the state health department found that waiting until the end of May to reopen was the only scenario that didn’t dramatically increase COVID-19 cases. Ducey’s stay-at-home orders expire at midnight on Friday, May 15, with guidelines on how businesses should reopen.

Sawaya said he was busier on the first day back than on a typical day before the closure.

“I realized that there is a big responsibility that comes along with reopening during this time,” he said. “There is a concern with that, but I feel that we can do it very responsibly.”

The response from local fitness centers to restrictions being eased is mixed with some opening first thing Wednesday morning with safety and sanitation measures in place and others planning to reopen later this week. Some business owners have opted to continue with online and modified services.

The YMCA of Southern Arizona is taking a different approach for it’s four Tucson locations, which are larger than Tucson Fitness or Psychosomatic Evolution. They have a phased plan on how to reopen.

“We want to get this right the first time,” says CEO Kurtis Dawson. “Nobody here in Tucson wants to be the next hot spot, so we’re making sure that we’re mitigating as much risk as possible to keep our members safe and keep our staff safe.”

Before they announce an opening date, the YMCA is making sure they have adequate supplies, signage and training on the new norms and standards to promote safety, such as wearing masks and social distancing. Software will track the capacity in the building.

The phased reopen will start without some regular activities like swim lessons, camp and group exercises, Dawson said.

“It’s really going to be a very slow start,” he said. “In this phase plan that we have, we do it at the right pace, at the right speed, be very methodical to ensure that we’re keeping everybody safe.”

Safety is one reason Melanie Black decided to close her brick-and-mortar Nerd Gym and take the operation online. After all, Black says, the No. 1 rule of Nerd Gym is don’t die.

“In any type of crisis, you have to kind of think of what’s really the most important to you,” she says. “I got into being a personal trainer to actually help people become healthier, happier, fitter, live longer.”

Also, she had overhead to cover — rent, bills and employees. She had choices to make.

And as she moved her gym equipment out of the building she decided to let go, into the homes of the staff, which she decided to keep, she knew she had her ride-or-die crew.

The gym lost close to 60% of their patrons, but Black says they’re starting to get new clients. And as she and her staff of three health coaches do live online classes, personal training, nutrition consultations and more, she’s realized there’s an advantage to taking fitness virtual.

Her patrons no longer compartmentalize their health to the inside of a gym. Now, she is essentially inside their homes, cleaning out their cupboards with them and walking them through lifestyle changes. And for now at least, she has no plans to return to a physical location.

“The online coaching is actually accomplishing the goals that I set out in this business to accomplish,” she says. “Break down their obstacles, make them feel amazing and competent and do that in a way that’s not going to get anybody killed.”

Reporter Alec White contributed to this story. Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com

or 573-4223. On Twitter:

@DanyelleKhmara.

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