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‘We’ve had three months to plan for this': Baltimore-area gyms, clients eager for Friday’s reopening

The irony is not lost on Amy Eagan.

The 42-year-old professional cake artist owns a cake baking company called SugarDoh. She is also a fitness addict.

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“I do the opposite of a gym,” Middle River resident said with a laugh. “I eat cakes and work out.”

When the coronavirus pandemic forced Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to shut down nonessential businesses, including gyms, on March 16, Eagan could no longer visit Forze XXIV Gym in Middle River. She tried running, but tired of the repetition. She borrowed weights and training bands from a friend, but missed the atmosphere of her gym.

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“There’s just something about going to a gym,” she said. “People that go to a gym understand. It’s hard to stay motivated. I was able to do a little bit of this and that, but not a whole lot.”

Eagan and other gym Baltimore-area buffs will get a reprieve beginning this weekend after Hogan announced that indoor gyms can open Friday at 5 p.m. at 50% capacity. Several gyms in the metropolitan area are not wasting any time and will resume business as soon as possible.

“Everybody is so excited to come back,” said Donyel Cerceo, marketing director for Merritt Clubs. The local chain will open six of its branches in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties Friday, but its gyms in Canton, downtown Baltimore and Federal Hill will remain closed because Baltimore City officials have not yet relaxed as many COVID-19-related restrictions.

Asked to describe members’ excitement level, Cerceo replied, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say 50. People are like, ‘It’s go time!’”

“We approached the reopening of our business as if we are planning to open a new business.”

Gym users who return to their fitness facilities will find much different environments in the post-coronavirus era. Many gyms have moved machines and benches around to meet the 6-foot recommendation to limit the spread of the virus. Other precautions include screening members’ temperatures at entrances, capping attendance at classes and child care and reducing hours of operation to give staff time to clean facilities and wipe down equipment.

TITLE Boxing Club in Columbia will no longer lend boxing gloves and handwraps to first-time users. Shower facilities at the Merritt Clubs will be open, but users will have to bring their own soap, shampoo and towels. Brick Bodies, which will open its branches in Timonium and Reisterstown on Friday, has removed soft-touch equipment such as mats.

“We approached the reopening of our business as if we are planning to open a new business,” Brick Bodies owner Vicki Brick wrote via email. “We have refined our business operations, enhanced our cleaning and sanitizing protocols, completely retrained our staff, and invested in leadership training.”

Some gyms have gone beyond adding hand sanitizer stations and tubs of disinfectant wipes. Brick Bodies has invested about $60,000 to install air purifiers, purchase hand-held electrostatic foggers and cover common touch points such as doors and handles with NanoSeptic wraps, which are billed as “self-cleaning surfaces.” The fitness company has added $40,000 to its payroll budget to have employees clean and to hire cleaning vendors.

Cerceo said the Merritt Clubs bought electrostatic sanitizing guns to clean equipment, and sneeze guards have been mounted at reception desks and on stages where instructors teach classes.

“We’ve had three months to plan for this,” she said.

Still, some gyms have not emerged from the COVID-19 outbreak unscathed. On Thursday, Brick Bodies announced that its women-only gym, Lynne Brick’s Belvedere Square in North Baltimore, would not reopen, citing in a post on Facebook the “negative financial impact” of being closed three months for the coronavirus.

Harry King, owner of Columbia’s TITLE Boxing Club location, said preventative measures are only as strong as the members and employees who abide by them.

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“It’s going to be a little different,” he acknowledged before Friday’s reopening. “Christmas in June is one good way to look at it, but I’m a little apprehensive about it as well because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Health officials and experts have raised concerns about a second wave of COVID-19, and warned gyms could become hot spots.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medical physician at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, told Ecowatch, an environmentally focused outlet, that working out compels people to breathe harder, which is how the virus can spread.

“Based on recent research, aerosolized droplets can remain airborne for up to three hours, making the potential for spread in crowded and confined spaces such as fitness studios problematic,” he said.

Yet many greeted the anticipated return of open gyms enthusiastically.

Edward Grosscup, a 59-year-old engineer from Severn, said he has done very little weightlifting since Merritt Clubs’ Buckingham branch closed. The self-described “gym rat” said he will be there Friday.

“Once you get involved in it and you start living the life, you become a gym rat,” he said. “It’s almost like an addiction. You start missing it, and if you don’t work out, you feel flabby.”

Mike Esposito, a 48-year-old salesman from Timonium who has been a Brick Bodies member for six years, bought a home gym during the shutdown, but was left unsatisfied.

“It’s just a totally different experience in the number of exercises you can do, the quality of the workout and the motivation,” he said. “So it was really difficult for me. Exercise is now a lifestyle for me and a routine. So it’s been totally disruptive to not be able to do that over the last three months. I say that I go to the gym half for vanity and half for sanity.”

Shirley Camiolo, a 63-year-old real estate broker from Perry Hall who has been a member of the Merritt Clubs’ White Marsh branch for two years, said she will take her own precautions such as wiping down equipment before and after using it and refraining from using the restroom unless necessary.

“They’re going to have the social distancing, they’re going to go by the guidelines, and it’s no different from me going to the grocery store and touching products and checking out,” she said. “I just don’t feel like it will be different, and I’m not afraid to do that.”

Eagan, the cake artist, said she plans to be at Forze at 5 p.m. Friday to support owner Thomas Sjolander, who moved some of his equipment to a 1,000-square-foot area with turf and a canopy in a parking lot behind the gym and opened it to members and nonmembers alike.

“I just think he’s done as much as he could possibly do as a business owner because this could have crumbled,” Eagan said. “But he went the other way. He made sure that everybody else was OK. It’s just amazing. You don’t find that too often.”

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Sjolander said he hopes to see many familiar faces this weekend.

“It’ll be like a reunion,” he said. “We’re not a corporate gym. We’re not a commercial gym. So we know everybody, and everybody knows everybody in here. It’s a different vibe in here. It’s a community and the people who come in here have missed this community.”

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