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Local gyms will need help to survive shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic | Jenice Armstrong

I’m not saying that gyms should be reopened during a pandemic. But fitness facilities shouldn’t be left to struggle on their own.

Ron Johnson stands next to weights inside his Yard Out Fit Club Philadelphia in Germantown. After coming out of federal prison in 2018, Johnson set out to use the fitness skills he learned while locked up to create a new life for himself.
Ron Johnson stands next to weights inside his Yard Out Fit Club Philadelphia in Germantown. After coming out of federal prison in 2018, Johnson set out to use the fitness skills he learned while locked up to create a new life for himself.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The gym I belonged to for years never reopened after the first pandemic shutdown.

I still work out most days, though. Sometimes a run around the neighborhood suffices. Other days, I play tennis at a nearby park or take a yoga class over Zoom. I also have a makeshift gym in the basement. I’m serious when it comes to staying in shape.

That’s partly why I’m so concerned about what’s happening with local gyms in Philadelphia. Gyms and fitness centers across Philadelphia were among the businesses the city ordered closed beginning Nov. 20. These latest COVID-reducing restrictions — known as Safer at Home — are expected to continue at least until Jan. 1.

That’s a long time for local workout places to be shut down, especially during winter months when residents are inside more. I have free weights and an adjustable bench but what about those who can’t work out at home? What are they supposed to do?

And what about the local gym industry and business owners like Ronald Rasul Johnson? After being released from a six-year federal prison stint in 2018, he vowed to never go back and spent two years saving to open his own gym. He named it, YardOut Fitness after the outdoor breaks inmates get from their cells when correctional officers yell, “Yard out.” Dec. 12 was supposed to be his big grand opening. But that was before the new restrictions were announced.

“I had so many people depending on me,” Johnson told me.

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On Tuesday morning, a new group calling itself the Philadelphia Fitness Coalition staged a workout demonstration outside the Municipal Services Building to draw attention to the plight of the local owners. Members insist that their spaces are safer under new protocols they adopted following the first shutdown that include sanitizing equipment after each use, having members use sanitizer before entering and enforcing social distancing.

About 3,000 people have signed a petition calling for gyms and fitness studios to be reopened and deemed essential businesses among other things.

To be clear. I’m not calling for gyms to be reopened during a pandemic. I’m not. Even if mine were to reopen, I wouldn’t go right now.

But fitness facilities shouldn’t be left to struggle through this on their own either. They need the support of local and federal governments like many businesses got earlier this year through the Paycheck Protection Plan.

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It’s in our best interest that they survive. When small businesses such as gyms and restaurants falter, it creates a chain effect that negatively impacts entire communities as employees get laid off and rents go unpaid.

Having to close before Black Friday hit gyms hard.

“Especially during this holiday season, they’ve effectively taken away a fourth to a fifth of the revenue that we generate through the year,” said Osayi Osunde of Philadelphia Fit Academy. “That’s the kind of revenue that holds us through really tough seasons like the summer.”

“We as a whole, we’re trying to just figure this out,” he added. “We support a lot of jobs. We support a lot of clients in terms of helping them reach their health and fitness goals, especially now with mental health really becoming an issue. People need us … Any way that they can get a physical routine down, it will help their mental health during this time.”

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He’s right about that.

As for Johnson of YardOut, he’s hoping to get his personal trainers used to the idea of training their clients outside in the cold which is permitted since outdoor workouts are believed to be safer than those conducted inside.

“I’ll try and convince them,” Johnson said. “When I was in prison, I had to work out outside no matter what. I went outside three times a day in cold weather and just pushed through it.”

If he’s lucky, Johnson will somehow manage to push through this period of uncertainty as well.