We’re staying open: Gym owner says first closure was tough and that it is ‘criminal’ to take away such an outlet

Patrons are parked in front of The Gym at 371 S.E. 12th Ave. in Ontario on Monday afternoon. Owner Mike Brownfield said that while he endured the first round of closures in March, it was barely. As such, when the second closure came around, he says, “There was no sound reasoning or justification, so we just stayed open.”

ONTARIO

When Gov. Kate Brown mandated a round of closures aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 back in March, gyms were among those that were to stop allowing patrons inside. Mike Brownfield, who opened The Gym in Ontario three years ago, and its counterpart in Payette a year later, said closing up was a hardship.

“It was tough. We lost a bunch of memberships during that time,” he said.

Patrons at his Oregon sport were able to hit the gym in Idaho, until Idaho shut down, too.

All the while, Brownfield still had to pay rent and utilities on the locations and opted to keep paying his two employees, as well, who he kept busy doing jobs such as maintenance and cleaning.

“I definitely had to dip into savings,” he said, of trying to stay afloat during the first closure.

Briefly during that time, Brownfield ended up opening to try to allow some people to workout, but shut down again after he got a “couple of calls from OSHA about masks.” He said that he told the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration representative that there were signs about masks and masks available for those who wanted them.

“He told me his caseload was too high, and never followed through,” Brownfield said. “We got turned in but nobody has come out to site us or fine us.”

Local or state enforcement?

Craig Geddes, director of Malheur County Environmental Health confirmed he is unable to do any local enforcement if a gym chooses to stay open, as they are not under his purview. However, if he does receive a complaint for any business whether licensed or not, he will send out an education letter, warning of the possibility of a citation and ask them to comply.

Businesses which don’t comply after the first letter and Environmental Health gets another complaint, it will then be referred to Oregon OSHA, he said.

Geddes emphasized that “any of the COVID enforcement type stuff is done on a complaint basis — it’s all complaint based.”

This is because there is not time to go business to business and check on people, he said.

For those facilities choosing to stay open, Geddes says he is empathetic, but that doesn’t prevent him from having to do his job.

“We certainly empathize with those facilities,” he said. “We understand it is definitely a hardship on the community and these businesses, and we do hear what they are going through and empathize with them for sure.

However, in his professional position and licensing, Geddes “would have to enforce” the rules about the mandate if it came down to it.

“But we would much rather take an educational approach.”

Information received from Oregon OSHA will appear in the newspaper on Friday.

Staying open instead

When the second round of closures happened Nov. 18, Brownfield did not close down as he had the first time.

“There was no sound reasoning or justification, so we just stayed open,” he said.

Additionally, Brownfield knew if he stayed closed, there was the risk he might never open again.

After they were able to open again just before summer, things didn’t just pick back up.

Still, he worked with his manager and partner Tony Keim on relocating the gym during the summer to a larger space, hoping to regain momentum.

“It’s still been slow, especially because a lot of the older members haven’t come back,” Brownfield said.

He said there was previously a “pretty good morning crew” of those people.

Once reopened, some people choose not to wear masks while exerting themselves, and Brownfield said with the new facility it’s easier to maintain social distance and get even more spaced out.

“With the new location and a new year [on the way], I’m really hoping to bounce back,” he said. “We put everything into this, hoping that would be the springboard in getting us back on track. This new closure is not a good thing.”

Emphasizing “we are part of the community,” Brownfield said he sees how gym closures have far-reaching impacts.

“To take away an outlet like that — it’s criminal,” he said. “To a lot of people this is stress relief and medical. It might not be prescribed by a doctor, but this is a way of staying healthy mentally and physically. To take it away is terrible.”

Brownfield said something he wanted to emphasize was that they are keeping everything clean and that there is no pressure to get people there.

“If you don’t want to come, don’t come,” he said. “Come back when you feel safe.”

Benefit to body and mind

As someone who has been going to the gym his whole life, he said people just simply don’t go workout when they feel ill.

“If you feel sick, the gym is the last place to go — but you might still go to the store to get groceries or essentials,” Brownfield said. “No one is coming to the gym sniffling, sneezing and coughing.”

It is noteworthy that public health officials have cited transmission can occur from people who do not appear sick.

Brownfield said he feels the only people getting punished by the closures, especially the second round in less than a year, are small business owners. In staying open during this time of year, he said although they haven’t gained all the clients lost in March or April, cancellations have “slowed down or almost stopped,” and new people are coming back.

Brownfield reiterated that when it comes to hitting the gym, it’s not just a physical benefit, but a mental one too.

“To some people, this is their life and death,” he said. “I really think that health is in general a necessity.”

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