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Gyms reopen, adapt to new COVID-19 rules

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When the Ashland Family YMCA reopened after a 10-week closure, a dozen people were lined up in the early-morning hours waiting to get in.

“People were super grateful when we reopened and are super grateful to have us as part of their routine again,” said Michele Mitzel, the YMCA’s community relations director.

Under state-imposed restrictions, gyms in Jackson County closed in spring 2020, reopened in the summer and then closed again when COVID-19 cases started spiking in the fall.

Gov. Kate Brown recently eased state closures on gyms in extreme risk counties, allowing them to partially reopen Feb. 1.

Guidance from the state was initially perplexing, leaving many to believe gyms could have only six people inside at a time. Gym managers eventually figured out they could have more people as long as they were spread out in adequate spaces.

The Ashland YMCA, for example, is allowing six people at a time in areas like the weight-training room and the basketball gym. People can make reservations for lap swimming in the aquatic center. Youth swimming lessons have started up again, with a cap on numbers, Mitzel said.

“It’s pretty manageable. We haven’t had to turn anyone away,” she said.

There are sometimes more than six people wanting to use the weight room, but they can wait in the fitness center or other rooms until space is available, Mitzel said.

The Ashland YMCA is asking people to limit their workouts to 45 minutes, she said.

People must wear masks inside, and extra sanitizing measures are being taken at local gyms.

The Rogue Valley Family YMCA has four large spaces that provide room for six people each — allowing the facility to host up to 24 people, said Brad Russell, executive director of the center in downtown Medford.

Workers moved equipment such as weights and cardio equipment into the gym to allow members to spread out more. People can also use the fitness center or a room for stretching and circuit weight training. The lobby, with easy-to-clean vinyl chairs, provides a place for people to take a break.

When gyms reopened in the summer after the spring 2020 closure, not everyone flocked back at once. Some were afraid of working out inside a gym due to the pandemic, Russell said.

About 15% to 20% of members initially came back in the summer, with numbers growing to about 50% of members by the fall, before the November shutdown, he said.

The Rogue Valley YMCA expects members will gradually return for this reopening, too.

“Some folks are eager to get back here. Other members are more cautious. They can come in and take a tour and see what it’s like,” Russell said. “Once they feel comfortable, we’re happy to welcome them back.”

Even while the Rogue Valley YMCA was closed, more than half of members continued to pay for their membership to the YMCA, which is a nonprofit organization, he said.

The YMCAs in Ashland and Medford have both been providing emergency child care for working parents during the pandemic and after the devastating September 2020 fires that destroyed thousands of homes in Jackson County. They’ve offered online fitness classes and reached out to members.

Mitzel said many Ashland YMCA members have maintained their memberships despite the COVID-19 closures.

“Most of the membership know they’re contributing to a larger cause. There’s been a loss in members, but it hasn’t been as significant as for other gyms we’ve seen,” Mitzel said. “It helps that we’re more than just a gym.”

Jim Kusnerik, owner of two Superior Athletic Clubs in Medford and Superior Fitness in Eagle Point, said the repeated state-mandated closures and limited reopenings have been devastating to his business and other fitness clubs.

“Reopening under the current guidelines provides each business with a little air to breathe, but it is not enough to sustain any business that has been closed down,” Kusnerik said.

Each of his three gyms is operating with up to 24 patrons inside. Masks are required at all times except while swimming, he said.

The gyms are taking on extra costs to follow cleaning and sanitizing protocols. They’re paying for staff time plus additional supplies such as hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and disinfectant cleaners, Kusnerik said.

The Oregon Health & Fitness Alliance has been critical of the state-imposed closures and limits placed on gyms.

The alliance said people who can’t work out in gyms often see their physical health decline and face mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Some older people have seen a drop in their mobility because they can’t access recumbent bikes, fitness classes and therapy pools, they say.

The alliance noted COVID-19-related deaths are higher among people who suffer from health issues like diabetes and obesity.

Jackson County’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been dropping, but the county is still one of 14 counties in the state’s extreme risk category.

The number of people allowed inside gyms increases as counties advance into the state’s high-, moderate- and low-risk categories.

“We’re looking forward to having more restrictions lifted so we can offer more,” Mitzel said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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Adam McMenomy, left, and Lloyd Ricks work out at the Medford YMCA on Thursday. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)