‘It felt good to be back’: Tampa Bay gyms re-open

“We know some people, they’re not ready to come back or they still want to work out at home for now,” the owner of one kickboxing gym said.
Trainer Neil Magida, 44, and his client, Kevin Northcott, 31, both of Tampa, train at Optimum Gym on its first day opening back up for members, on Monday, May 18, 2020 in Tampa.
Trainer Neil Magida, 44, and his client, Kevin Northcott, 31, both of Tampa, train at Optimum Gym on its first day opening back up for members, on Monday, May 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 18, 2020|Updated May 19, 2020

Vicki LeMay wrapped up her first in-person workout class in weeks by holding up a spray bottle.

She walked around the gym floor at Burg Fitness & Cycling, squirting an alcohol-based cleaner on each participant’s mat, spaced well over 6 feet apart from each other. Then she pointed to a bucket of sanitizing wipes in the middle of the room.

“Grab as many wipes as you want,” said LeMay, who owns the boutique gym in St. Petersburg. “I have a ton of them.”

After the class left for the day, LeMay would do a third round of spraying and wiping. The extra rounds of cleaning were part of a new era for gyms that reopened Monday across Florida after weeks of being shutdown by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tampa Bay area gyms big (the regional YMCAs, the Brandon Sports and Acquatics Center, etc.) and small (indoor cycling, yoga studios and boutique fitness centers) ran with the opportunity to open for business.

But with COVID-19 still a health threat, many put new protocols in place: smaller classes with shorter durations for more time to clean off equipment, more sanitizing stations, spaced out equipment and temperature checks at the door, to name a few.

Related: Ron DeSantis: Florida Gyms will reopen starting Monday

Regardless, it was a welcome change for gym-goers who, even amid thunderstorms and a short-lived tornado warning early Monday, made it out to classes and workouts across Tampa Bay. Many said that, even more than the workouts, they missed the sense of community — and accountability — that gyms provide.

"Being back felt like the first day of school after summer, seeing all our friends,” said Burg CrossFit member Bennett Andrews, 31. “There’s such a close community there, and it was nice to get back in the saddle and have that group and environment that really pushes you during your workout.”

He and his wife Megan Andrews, 32, arrived at their gym’s 8 a.m. class., where members worked in stations at least 6 feet away from each other. The couple had been working out in their garage for weeks, doing handstand pushups against a door leading to their side yard.

CrossFit, an equipment-heavy workout, isn’t exactly easy to replicate at home, especially when workout equipment was running short in stores. Jackie Minchillo, another Burg CrossFit regular, tried to buy barbells and weight plates online, but several retailers were sold out. The search took her to a local supplier who had what she needed in his dwindling inventory.

“It’s just not the same when you’re trying to do it yourself from home," said Minchillo, 31. “It felt good to be back.”

Related: Outdoor workouts grow around Tampa Bay

Under a grey, cloudy sky, the Bardmoor YMCA held outdoor classes and allowed 25 people per hour into the Largo fitness center. Members with masks on lined up, 6 feet apart marked by decals on the sidewalk and were led in by staff to get their temperatures checked before going inside.

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The precautions didn’t deter Mike Capco, 63. He’d been working out at home, which he called “no fun.” He said that the staff makes sure people are keeping social distance and cleaning equipment.

“Look at these people,” he said, gesturing from the exercise bike at a group of purple-shirted workers wiping down equipment. “It all works because they’re conscientious and they’re taking care of it. There’s no problem being in here.”

The break wasn’t easy on gym owners and trainers either, who turned to video classes and small business grants to stay afloat. As restaurants and salons were given the green light to reopen, gym owners and fitness diehards questioned why they weren’t included.

MA Fitness, a kickboxing gym in St. Petersburg, lost about 25 percent of its members as soon as it closed, said co-owner operator Matt DiPietro. More trickled out in the following weeks, and he had to temporarily lay off some instructors.

But the coronavirus has also pushed the gym to evolve, in ways small and big. He and his staff are working on more precise verbal instructions so they don’t have to get close to someone to adjust their form. And even as in-person classes come back, the gym plans to keep offering the remote classes — which DiPietro predicts will become a major part of the fitness industry, not just a Band-Aid.

“We know some people, they’re not ready to come back or they still want to work out at home for now,” he said.

Related: Florida gyms reopen Monday. Will people go?

That’s exactly the inner debate that personal trainer Rhonda Starks, 56, is working through. Starks is still not sure if she’ll return to her training job at the Campo Family YMCA in Valrico when it reopens Wednesday.

Over the time it’s been closed, she’s leaned into her side job: working one-on-one as a personal trainer with other middle-aged women. She’s grown her list of clients by allowing passers-by to join in small bootcamp-style workouts of no more than 10 at a time, where each person would get their own corner of a local basketball court and follow along.

Along with concern for her own health, Starks’ clients, many ages 50 to 70, have told her they’re unsure about going back to gyms.

“I think a lot of people will be going back to basics," Starks said, “maybe not by going to the gym but by making friends and getting outside.”

Times staff writers Dirk Shadd and Doug Clifford contributed to this report.

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