Are gyms 'COVID-19 mosh pits' or essential therapy? Locals react to reopening controversy

Sparta. Many local residents say they can't wait for the day when they'll be able to return to their favorite gym. And gym owners say they've prepared health protocols to protect their clients once the governor gives the word. But some say opening gyms now is too risky.

Newton /
| 19 May 2020 | 05:45

Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti, owners of a gym in Camden County, defied government COVID-19 mandates and opened on Monday morning. Some local people don't think that's a bad thing.

The Sussex County Sheriff, Michael Strada, is a member of R&T Nautilus in Newton.

“I feel that it is okay to open gyms as long as there is proper sanitation and other necessary precautions in place,” he said. “I also believe that small businesses should be allowed to open and other retail should be allowed to open. The number of positive cases is rapidly declining in Sussex County. New York state is opening using a regional approach. The same should be applied here.”

Heather Davey is the manager of R&T Nautilus in Newton, which is co-owned by her mother, Terri Dicks, and Robin Ball.

“Our gym has a plan in place, and we are ready,” Davey said. “We also have sanitized every inch of the gym We have a thermometer to check temps upon entry, and we bought a fogger."

She said people need the gym. "We have many people who come in, and it’s so much more than their work out," she said. "It’s what keeps them sober. It’s their therapy, it’s their sanity.”

Davey has managed R&T for over a decade and knows what it means to people.

“Being closed is affecting so many people,” she said. “I have had more people reach out to me asking when we are going to open than I can count.”

Mychal Jensen Lida owns Real Time Fitness in Andover.

“I’m not going to open until I see these gyms stay open after a week or two with no issues,” he said. “Once we are ready to open by the government, I’ll be checking temperatures at the door, making each client/member carry a spray bottle of disinfected, and also limit how many members will be allowed at the gym at once with the social distance in mind. They will be monitored by the staff as well. Staff will be wearing masks as well.”

'A step in the right direction'

Janessa and Anthony Freda own Alpha Fitness in Newton.

“The gym opening their doors in Camden County is a step in the right direction,” Janessa Freda said. “I am as ready as anyone to open Alpha again. My only concern is the blow-back. I don't want this to put unnecessary negative focus on all of the gyms and let defiance take away from the reality that gyms are essential and we are willing to follow any rules set forth by the state. Enough time has passed to give us an opening date to work towards at the very least. Some good news would go a long way right now. All of the small business owners deserve that respect.”

Alpha has already taken its own steps to provide a more healthy and sanitary environment inside once they can reopen.

“All of our cardiovascular equipment has been spaced apart, and we will encourage everyone to keep a machine apart to abide by social distancing concerns,” Anthony Freda said. “Also, we will have extra sanitizer located inside each room of the facility to use upon entrance. Everyone must sanitize upon entrance and exit of the facility. Our staff will be extra vigilant in cleaning the facility throughout the day and will be provided with sanitary face masks and gloves. These are some of the proactive steps that we have taken while waiting for the official rules from the state.”

Chris Ennis, owner of Skylands Ninja Warrior in Newton, has re-invented the business during the shutdown.

“Due to COVID-19 shutting down all gyms in New Jersey, I’ve decided to change paths for a little bit until things get back to normal,” he posted. “Since you can’t come to the facility to train, I am going to bring the gym to you! I’m happy to announce Skylands will be teaming up with Obstacle Training Academy to build ninja/obstacle rigs which can be installed in your backyard.”

Retro Fitness is a large chain founded in 2005 in New Jersey. Since then, the franchise has grown to 152 locations covering 14 states. The Newton facility opened a few years ago. “I am not really comfortable commenting," said a spokesperson.

Fitness Haven will be a studio gym in Hampton Township. It's the brainchild of Rachel Polk, who said they are waiting on the governor to set an opening date. But they have already set up COVID-19 protocol.

“We have contracted with Cintas for their deep cleaning services,” she said. “Within the studio, there will be makers to maintain social distancing, no shared equipment, and clients will be responsible for bringing their own exercise mats, and everyone will be required to wear socks. We will do temperature checks and wipe down all high traffic areas, and masks will be required unless during rigorous exercise.”

Shari Macatee owns Snap Fitness franchises in Vernon, Oak Ridge and West Milford, as well as in Warwick, N.Y.

“It's time for us to get back to working out,” she said. “This is crazy. You can go into Walmart, but you can't go to the gym. As long as you take the precautions, gyms should be able to open.”

Being closed has caused a financial strain on Macatee, who has owned her gyms for 12 years.

“I got $10,000 from the government, which covered one gym for one month for rent and utilities," she said. "I have four gyms. I've had to take out of my savings and open an equity line. I don't want to go into debt for something I've taken so long to build.”

Macatee said she applauds the south Jersey gym for opening.

“Cudos to the gym for opening because someone had to make a point,” she said. “I was thinking of organizing a protest, but I'm part of a franchise, and they'd kick me out for that.”

Rebecca Robinson of Sparta agrees with the Walmart analogy.

“If we can have Walmart and Home Depot open, we certainly should have our gyms open,” she said. “Precautions can and should be put into place such as limiting numbers, spacing out equipment use, staggering classes and entry to allow for wiping down of all surfaces and equipment.”

Patti Bussow of Sandyston suggests restrictions.

“I say absolutely yes" to opening, she said. “Limit it to individual workouts and no more than 10 clients using the facility at a time, provided an employee can properly sanitize equipment after every use. It’s time businesses are allowed to reopen and we are trusted as the public to be responsible.”

Ken Freedman of West Milford goes to Planet Fitness.

“It's past time,” he said. “Open please A.S.A.P.”

Lori Scutt of Stillwater feels gyms are an essential outlet.

“If you don’t want to go, don’t go, but let those who want to use the gym be allowed to,” she said. “They can and will adhere to guidelines just like we do in grocery stores. These gym owners and their employees need to get back to work.”

'Not worth the risk'

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of gyms opening. Sheri Young, who lives just south of Sussex County, is skeptical.

“Gyms tend to have a lot of germs, that's just how they are,” she said. “I don't think they can be thoroughly sanitized between use as there are too many surfaces. I'm working out on my own for a while longer. It's not worth the risk.”

Jefferson Township native Brian Lynch agrees that gyms should remain shut.

“Gyms are COVID-19 mosh pits,” he said. “The virus load in a workout room has got to be through the the roof and certainly high enough to receive an infectious threshold through a persons eyes. Unless you wear a mask and goggles and the gym has massive air handling capabilities, I don’t think you can be safe there.”

Reacting Monday to the gym opening in Camden County, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in a statement that law enforcement officers are “balancing public health and public safety” and “those individuals who violate the governor’s orders make it harder for our officers to do their jobs and they put our officers at risk.”

But Jerseyans love their gyms. “Absolutely gyms should open,” said Dan Holdt of Hampton. “No requirements needed. If you feel safe to walk in and work out, great. If not, don’t walk in and work out.”

Holdt is a member of R&T Nautilus. "If you give people the opportunity to do the right thing, and treat them as adults, they will usually make the right decision," he said. "Some won’t, and that’s called 'freedom,' and it’s a beautiful thing.”

And some are fed up with the double standard. “If those politicians are sitting right next to each other during these press conferences without masks, then the American people don't need to at all,” said Steven Thropp of Newton. “Gyms can reopen without an issue. Gyms promote healthy lifestyles. Sanitation during certain hours of operations can be determined by the owners. There is no reason for anything to be closed with proper protocols set in place to make those politicians happy.”

“Being closed is affecting so many people. I have had more people reach out to me asking when we are going to open than I can count.” --Heather Davey, R&T Nautilus