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Anchorage gyms and exercise studios slowly reopen to both trepidation and relief

Joey Peacott swam laps at the YMCA of Alaska on Lake Otis Parkway during COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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When Anchorage’s YMCA of Alaska reopened earlier this month, Joey Peacott was anxious to get back to his daily routine: swimming a mile and a half of laps in the Lake Otis Parkway location’s pool.

After visiting the gym almost every day for the last 18 years, Peacott had spent nearly two months away. “It was really hard not being able to swim every day,” he said.

On May 12, a day the YMCA reopened, he was back swimming laps.

“I’m loving it,” Peacott said.

Joey Peacott at the YMCA on Thursday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Anchorage gyms and exercise studios began reopening in recent weeks at limited capacity and with strict sanitizing protocols in place. They closed in mid-March under a statewide mandate meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Statewide capacity restrictions were lifted Friday as Alaska accelerated into the next phases of its reopening plan. In Anchorage, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Friday that the city’s capacity restrictions also would be lifted Monday, but that businesses like gyms and studios would be required to follow a set of social distancing and hygiene rules.

Still, some Anchorage gyms are reopening at a slower pace, under stricter rules. Some smaller studios are waiting to open their doors, wary of a second wave of COVID-19.

Also, not all gym members are ready to return.

Dana Jack works out at the YMCA of Alaska on Lake Otis Parkway on Thursday. ’I'm getting used to lifting again and getting back to where I was, ’ Jack said. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Across the fitness community, the easing of restrictions brought a mix of both trepidation and relief.

“We’re all trying to make moral and ethical decisions that we feel will protect our employees but yet invite people back who do want to come climb in the gym,” said Siri Moss, general manager of the Alaska Rock Gym. “It’s really difficult to tread that fine line in this day and age.”

The climbing gym reopened Sunday to members only on a reservation-only basis. It’s been difficult to reopen under quickly changing mandates and guidelines, Moss said. The gym is requiring face masks and social distancing and is providing all climbing groups with a bottle of sanitizing solution. Climbers must wash or sanitize their hands between climbs. It isn’t opening adult climbing classes or its yoga studio yet.

Even though capacity restrictions will lift next week, Moss said that the gym is waiting to see how its patrons respond.

“We can’t just throw the doors open to the gym if we’re going to be observing social distancing,” Moss said. “We just have to watch this whole thing unfold and see how our facility is affected and how people do.”

The Alaska Club has ramped up hygiene at its gyms. It installed air scrubbers in heating and ventilation systems, electrostatic sprayers for equipment sanitizing and acquired sanitizing “fog bombs” that the facility uses every few days, Alaska Club President Robert Brewster said. The most difficult part has been tracking down supplies like sanitizer, he said.

“There’s a moral responsibility that we have to make sure people are safe,” Brewster said.

The Alaska Club locations are large — 50,000 to 100,000 square feet — and social distancing should not be a problem, Brewster said.

But space limitations are a problem for other, smaller studios. And most small locations struggling during the shutdown can’t afford to upgrade their sanitizing systems.

Deha Yoga in South Anchorage has shuttered permanently. “That was really painful to watch,” said Joshua Love, owner of Anchorage Yoga and Cycle.

Love has been offering virtual yoga classes and cycle sessions. Anchorage Yoga and Cycle is slowly adding back in-person classes, Love said. It opened for in-person classes May 18, with just two classes and 28 spots per day under a 10-foot social distancing requirement. It used to have about 400 spots per day, he said.

This week the studio is increasing the number of in-person classes but is waiting for clear guidance from the municipality. It will create a “sustainable summer schedule” in early June, likely with five classes a day offered, Love said.

But the business model used to be all-access for a lot of members, and now, many are stuck on wait lists for spots in classes, he said. How many spots they can offer per class is contingent on the city’s social distancing rules.

Svia Rothstein owns Open Space, a donation-based yoga studio, rental space and massage space. She’s concerned about the virus spreading.

“I never want to be the place where they call me and say, ‘We have tracked three cases to your studio,’ ” Rothstein said. “I would be devastated. My business would be devastated.”

Open Space is closed for now, but Rothstein wants to open as soon as she can do it safely. For now, she’s hosting a free virtual class once a week.

Member service representative Jamaal Clark points out the temporary closure of showers in the men's locker room at the YMCA on Thursday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

At the Anchorage YMCA Alaska locations, patrons are trickling in, said CEO Larry Parker. The Lake Otis Parkway location used to see 550 people a day and now gets between 50 and 60.

On Wednesday, most of its showers were closed. Drinking fountains were covered in black plastic bags to prevent use. In the cardio and weight room, limited for now to 20 people, just a few members exercised.

Members have been keeping a good distance and cleaning all the equipment they touch, and staff cleans around the clock, sanitizing and re-sanitizing commonly touched things, Parker said.

Employee Taylor Seavey disinfects work out equipment in the YMCA of Alaska on Lake Otis Parkway on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Those members who are more at risk, like seniors, are staying away for now, Parker said.

Ida Dailey, 79, joined the local YMCA gym in 1982 and usually attends a gentle exercise class for seniors. She hasn’t been back to the gym yet.

“It’s such a life-giving thing for us,” Dailey said. “It’s not just community, it’s making sure that you’re doing physically and mentally the best you can.”

It’s difficult to put into words how much she misses it, she said.

“My latest saying is, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We do not live in the same world,’ ” Dailey said.

The YMCA has yet to hold any in-person exercise classes — although it is holding classes via Zoom and Facebook Live. Those will likely continue, because many gym users have told Parker they are not ready to return, he said.

But Nadine Price, a retired physical education teacher and a steadfast YMCA patron, was ready to get back to her “home away from home."

After working out last week, “my heart was happy, my head was happy and my arms were sore,” Price said.

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