GLADSTONE, Missouri — As I got out of my car in the gym parking lot, I made sure that my gym bag included something it’s never had in it before: A spray bottle full of bleach water.
The bottle has gone with me to grocery and home improvement stores over the past six-plus weeks. Even the golf course as I’ve gotten outside whenever possible and tried to add any semblance of sports normalcy to my life. But not to the gym. It’s been closed.
That changed on Monday as my gym and various other business across the state of Missouri were allowed to reopen unless prohibited by city orders. Missouri was one of the last states that instituted a stay-at-home order.
Missouri’s reopening plan begins as the city of St. Louis recorded 97 confirmed positive coronavirus cases on Sunday, the most positive tests its ever had in a single day. The previous high of 82 came on April 6.
St. Louis, the home of over half the state’s coronavirus cases, still has a stay-at-home order. Kansas City does too. But businesses like gyms and restaurants in suburbs and towns without their own bans on non-essential activities that are located in and around the two metro areas could reopen on Monday with limited capacities and patrons asked to observe social distancing protocols.
So what the heck is it like to work out on the first day a gym is back open in the midst of a pandemic? It’s unnerving. Even for a gymrat.
The expectation level when driving into the parking lot was low. Was it going to be empty as people decided to keep waiting the pandemic out? Or were people going to be itching to get back to their normal routines because the state said they could?
The answer was far more the latter than it was the former. The typical early-afternoon lull at the facility was nonexistent. The people needed their weights.
In fairness, I was one of those people. It’s possible to get good workouts with minimal equipment and lots of creativity while at home. And I have access to more home gym equipment than most.
But I wanted to try to find the normalcy as well. Lifting in a facility full of stronger people is an intoxicating motivator. The familiar faces were comforting. Yet they were discomforting at the same time.
How well had the groups of guys working out together socially distanced over the past seven weeks? Had they stopped being in close contact with their friends and families and chose to only go out when necessary? What had they done over the weekend? Did they wipe down that piece of equipment both before and after they used it? How recently had they washed their hands? Are people going to stay six feet away as they walk past me?
The questions that didn’t cross my mind in early March suddenly dominated my brain as I was loading and unloading the barbell I used to deadlift and I found myself using that bottle like Roundup on an overgrown yard.
Working out is typically my primary de-stressor. Monday, it was a stressor.
Gyms were an obvious candidate to close during the coronavirus pandemic. People sweat and don’t always clean it up. Everything, from machines to mats to dumbbells is shared. And no matter a gym owner’s best efforts at regular cleaning and sanitizing, a facility is only as clean as the people using it make it.
Because of those characteristics, gyms and fitness centers are a pretty good window into how we could act when the opportunities to attend live sporting events present themselves again. If you’re willing to go spend an hour or more in an indoor area with a bunch of shared equipment and run on a treadmill next to someone, you could also be willing to go to watch a game in an arena or stadium with a bunch of other people.
Yet we all know that opportunity for fans to watch sports in-person doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. NASCAR is set to come back in less than two weeks but won’t have fans in attendance for the foreseeable future. If the NBA and NHL resume their seasons, they assuredly won’t have fans around.
It’s far from a guarantee at all that fans will be able to attend NFL and college football games like normal in four months. And that’s even with the assumption that coronavirus cases will decline as we go through the summer.
Will that decline happen if everyone who wants to be active starts going back to the gym on a frequent basis as soon as it’s allowed? Maybe. Maybe not. And the thought of maybe not is hard to shake, even if gyms play an infinitesimal part in that what if. We still don’t know a lot about this virus, but we do know just how fast it can spread amidst people sharing spaces for more than a few minutes at a time.
The rewards of getting a great workout are too numerous to list and more easily achievable at a gym thanks to the wide array of equipment available. But the risks still seem too high, even if my state is willing to allow them and I’m armed with my bleach bottle.
I’ll be back to the gym. I just don’t know when.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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