For 42 days and 42 nights, gyms in Dahlonega were closed.
When Dahlonega Fitness Center opened back up on Monday, May 4, a small crowd was already waiting at 7:45 a.m., ready to get back to work.
Once statewide cornavirus-related restrictions were eased, Dahlonega Fitness Center owner RaeLynda Merry assessed the situation and 10 days later, arrived early to open the doors.
Pat Braswell was one of the first in line.
“We were one of the first ones here on Monday, we’ve been keeping up to see when she was going to open up,” she said. “Rae is one of the cleanest people, she’s a clean freak, so it was not a problem at all. And we clean our equipment before and after, we knew that we’d have to keep the social distancing and that she’d set it up so that people couldn’t get close to one another, so no there was no hesitation.”
Getting the gym ready to reopen in a social-distanced world wasn’t easy.
“We had to really dig into the governor’s orders and for us, it wasn’t as easy as just flipping a switch to come back,” Merry said.
Getting supplies was a challenge too.
“Hand Sanitizer is like gold here, and we have to have it like it’s part of some of the requirements,” Merry said.
However, Merry wasn’t fazed by the extra work. It was how the community would react to her reopening that worried the gym owner.
“Right as the whole coronavirus started to transpire…we were inundated, we had tons of hate mail, I had voice mails of people calling us ‘murderers,’ I had a voice mail of people calling us traitors, for being open and just people like ‘y’all aren’t doing the ethical thing,’” she said. “We were inundated with that kind of stuff before we closed and I had the fear Monday that I’m going to have these people picketing out on my sidewalk, but we didn’t. I was like ‘oh my gosh, I don’t want to pull up and there be 30 people outside protesting that we’re opening up. But yeah, people were that vicious.”
Others were upset when the gym was required to close.
Members who work out for obvious health reasons wanted to know why a fitness center wasn’t considered essential.
“We come in here to keep healthy, to build our immune system. We come in here relieve our mental anxiety and stresses,’” Merry said. “We’ve had members who had heart attacks and stuff that have to exercise every day so that was a challenge trying to explain that to them, and I’m [telling them] ‘I don’t know, ask your governor.’”
WORKING IT OUT
But when the day finally came, all was peaceful. And gym member Chris Cornillaud was happy to be back at his workout home.
“I love coming to the gym so as soon as they came open I was here,” Cornillaud said. “…You come here and you just grind, it’s like a lifestyle for most people and it was kind of hard when it all just shut down and everything just disappeared.”
For Braswell it’s about being able to get out again.
“We are social people so being able to get out in public was very, very uplifting and a sense of relief,” she said. “We’ve got a good 25 feet from person to person right now, but yeah it felt really good to be able to get back out. If we all practice the social distancing and being careful, I don’t think there’s going to be a problem.”
But not everyone was ready to take advantage of their gym access just yet.
“When we were mandated to close, we had about 80 cancels, which for us, that is huge,” Merry said. “Our membership is right at 600 right now...and we lost about 80. We have a huge student population from UNG so we lost those because they kicked off of campus, so we didn’t charge any fees for them to cancel… We lost a lot of our extreme elderly, some of the people [in their] 70’s and 80’s.”
The loss of members just added to the economic strain caused by the virus, as the center did not charge membership fees while closed, yet still maintained all overhead cost on its end. However the gym was able to add a few new members upon reopening to counter the cancellations, adding 26 new members on the first day since reopening.
At the moment, DFC is capping occupancy at 30 people and requesting that members limit their gym time to an hour or less to ensure all members have an opportunity to use the gym. Merry has also implemented more strict cleaning requirements, but says that so far everyone has been “very accommodating” with the extra sanitation and social distancing.
“They take a personal towel and cleaning bottle and they are to wipe down before and after use and then we’re just going in behind everybody when they get off and on as well and they’ve all been amazing,” she said. “They want me to stay open so they’re not going to not follow the rules.”
Merry feels that with the stipulations she’s put in place, her gym is safe for all of her members to return, but she understands why some aren’t comfortable just yet.
“I can guarantee you, you can go out there and ask any member, even before the coronavirus, this was the cleanest gym you walked into,” she said. “We’re using medical grade cleaner to clean, members are required to clean before and after and we go behind them immediately right now. So I would say it’s safe to come on in, we do not require that anybody wear a mask or gloves, but we encourage them, if it makes you feel more comfortable, then absolutely. It’s just personal preference at this point, they have to make up their own mind. We’re open, we're here when they’re ready.”
REAL WORLD WORKOUTS
Across town at CrossFit Dahlonega, owner Thomas Coggins and his members were excited to be able to join together for an in-person workout once again, after weeks of virtual workouts.
“People are definitely excited to get back in the gym,” Coggins said. “It’s a much different atmosphere, working out by yourself at home or on a video call than it is actually being with people, having a human interaction and challenging each other during a workout face-to-face.
Coggins explained that the community mentality is a big aspect of CrossFit, so not being able to workout together was a challenge.
“It’s the community feel of it, the shared suffering,” he said. “… You accomplished something difficult with your friends, and that tight-knit community feel, that suffering is really what drives and fosters a family-community aspect.”
Member Jordan Meeks agreed, saying that working out virtually was not for him.
“It was terrible, I would do it, but very casually on both fronts,” Meeks said. “I wouldn’t do it as consistently and also I wouldn’t get after it near as hard as I would if I was here in a class setting.”
Meeks, like many, says he didn’t realize how much of a privilege it was to go to the gym before the shutdown.
“You take something away, you appreciate it more when you get back,” he said. “I’ve been watching myself get fatter for two months.”
Fellow member Hannah Schlosser appreciated the ZOOM workouts, but was also glad to be back in the gym.
“It was kinda cool, but not the same,” she said of the virtual workouts. “It was nice to see their faces but it’s better in person, definitely.
But just because CrossFit Dahlonega members are back in the gym doesn’t mean things are back to normal, as Coggins was also careful about when and how to reopen. Coggins, like Merry, also took some extra time to ensure he could reopen safely.
“We initially closed a week ahead of them actually announcing that they were going to close anything down,” Coggins said. “…As far as opening back up, what we took into consideration was a lot of different information from nurses that are actually members here and serve different hospitals and different clinics in the area of Dahlonega and Hall County, so we listened to what they were seeing on the front lines, took that into consideration and waited until this week to open back up.”
CrossFit Dahlonega reopened on May 4 as well and with new measures of social distancing in place.
“We’ve set aside specific areas in the gym where you work out in your box or your zone and you don’t really go outside of that area,” he said. “And then whenever that hour is done, we clean the equipment that you used, we use disinfectant, clean the square, mop the floor down where you were. We also instituted we’re not using really any high-traffic equipment…things that people share frequently. We are using dumbbells and those are easy to disinfect and clean, but we’re not using barbells or bumper plates or anything like that.”
Coggins feels that the return of his members together in the gym is in some ways symbolic of how the community is working together to overcome the virus.
“I think it’s a small microcosm of what the larger community is doing,” he said, “coming together and just building each other up.”