Local gyms reopening after COVID-19 shutdown

Paul Battson/ContributorLockport firefighter Joe Morello, left, and steelworker Troy Morris work out Friday at Ultimate Physique in Lockport. Gyms were recently allowed to reopen, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave facilities around the state the green light on Aug. 24.

After a long hiatus, gyms are finally back.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has allowed gyms to reopen their doors, and local facilities have eagerly welcomed back their inhabitants under COVID-19 guidelines Since the Aug. 24 reopening, local fitness clubs are trying to get back into the swing after five months off.

One of those gyms is Lockport's Ultimate Physique, a true mom-and-pop shop owned by the Muscarellas, Bob and Karen. Having owned their gym for 25 years now — including reconfiguring its current location from the old Washington Hunt elementary school in 2017 — Ultimate has become a pillar in the Lock City's community.

But owning just one building and being caught in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 has been more than a struggle for the owners.

"We've been open (since Aug. 26) now and from what I've experienced and from what I see with most people is the mask and the precaution we have to take to work out have pretty much made the experience of the gym pretty difficult and not very enjoyable," Bob said. " ... The only people that are really in the gym right now are just the real die-hard gym people that would come to the gym and work out if there were alligators and malaria in here."

The Muscarellas have lost out on several crowds with the state's decision. Without casual gym goers, the senior crowd and the college kids back at home before the fall semester, Ultimate has seen its membership status dwindle down to the 125 mark. In comparison, the gym generally has anywhere from 600 to 750 members throughout the year.

One saving grace has been the community support. Several members and others donated to the gym even when its doors were closed. It warms Bob's heart seeing the community he strives to help reciprocating during a dire time.

"Twenty-five years is pretty much a good chunk of your life," Bob said. "We do it because we love to do it and we love to help the people in Lockport be healthy and have wellness. ... We're the true mom and pops, we know everybody that comes in our gym, we have a conversation with 'em. We're a community."

This all comes after what was a promising start in the new site. The first year of business was great, but things took a slight dip once the new Lockport Family YMCA opened in the fall of 2018. Then 2019 brought members back in similarly to 2017, before the beginning of what looked to be a promising 2020.

The toughest part was  fees that still needed to be paid on the facility. Even with no guests throughout the spring and most of the summer, the Muscarellas still needed to handle cable and internet charges, and even got into disputes with their insurance company, which continued charging them liability fees. Bob described the conversations as "downright nasty and ugly."

Thankfully, the family was able to cut some costs with certain companies, but the effects have been felt.

Bob, 57, has had to pour extra hours into his day job as a pipe fitter, using most of his overtime money for the gym's expenses. It has been a tough road for him, but he said having Karen, 56, guiding the day-to-day operations of the gym has been tremendous. Bob called her "the rock" and "the guts" of the gym due to all she handles, like scheduling and coordinating class instructors, a fit with her bubbly personality.

The goal is for the gym to at least make it until Christmas, as long as things remain steady with Bob's day job. Until the dust is settled, though, he hopes his community members can come back to some form of normalcy.

"I think the biggest thing that my wife and I can say to the community is that we appreciate all our members that helped us along in this hard time," Bob said. "And we look forward to seeing their smiling faces come back to the gym when they're comfortable, and we just hope we can be here for 'em to further on fitness and wellness in the City of Lockport like we have for 25 years."

All the way across town, the Lockport YMCA has been acclimating to the reopening as well. This YMCA's branch executive director, Steve Henshaw, has enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm members have brought back into the building as they become accustomed to working out with stringent guidelines.

Henshaw described the five-month lockdown as "a stressful time," especially being unable to provide the multitude of programs their facility offers. But ultimately, the Y was able to help out when its members needed it the most.

"We did a food program for people in the community, we provided emergency child care programs," Henshaw said. "We tried to keep up with that while also doing ... online group exercise classes, nutrition classes, wellness classes. So there were members who had access to some of the things that we would normally do during that time."

Members also had the ability to either help the facility out by paying their membership during the hiatus or freeze their accounts, which the fitness center plans to uphold to until November.

Following along with the state's guidance in terms of reopening phases, the YMCA is slowly getting back to normal by opening up its pool, the wellness center and locker rooms, with hopes of the indoor group exercise classes, water exercise classes and the child watch program beginning over the next few months as it builds back to traditional hours.

Things have gotten off to a good start thus far, but Henshaw admits there has been some trouble even in this reopening.

"I think it's just communicating to our members that this is a safe place to come, the gym itself is a safe place to come," Henshaw said. "And the systems and the procedures that we have in place, it's not something that we just kind of threw together. ... We've been thinking about it for months and months on end."

Kids have been back in the facility for the emergency child care program and the Y's camp programs, so Henshaw hopes people see this as a sign that it's OK to get back inside its walls.

Seeing the amount of dialogue the Y staff and its members have had has been encouraging as well. Although the next few months will be in as unpredictable a time as we've ever seen, Henshaw is glad that he and the community are reunited once again.

Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.

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