Bar, gym owners stunned they can't reopen until late June

Posted May 20, 2020 7:52 p.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2020 11:25 p.m. EDT

— Some North Carolina business owners eagerly awaiting the move to the second stage of a three-part plan to resume activities amid the coronavirus pandemic were stunned Wednesday when they were left out of Gov. Roy Cooper's "more modest" approach to reopening.

"The increases in the COVID-19 cases signal a need to take a more modest step forward in Phase 2 than originally envisioned," Cooper said at a news conference.

When Cooper first laid out his three-part plan in April, bars, gyms, movie theaters and other indoor entertainment venues pointed to Phase 2 as when they could resume operations, albeit in a reduced capacity and under strict rules.

But Cooper said Wednesday that indoor places where people crowd together and often share items could become flashpoints for a renewed coronavirus outbreak, so he left all of those locations off his updated plan for Phase 2, which officials said would last at least five weeks.

"We can only help our economy when people have confidence in their own safety, which is why it's important to ease restrictions carefully," he said.

Gym owners were sorely disappointed by the news.

"We had planned to open, and we thought that opening would come either this week or next week," said Jack Wiggen, owner of Bull City Crossfit in Durham.

Wiggen said he had put 10- by 12-foot boxes around pieces of training equipment to ensure people were adequately spaced inside, and he was prepared to limit the number of customers inside to meet any guidelines the state set.

"We could have done anything from eight people down to three or four people at a time," he said. "We were just hoping for a chance to operate."

Wiggen said he couldn't forecast the financial impact of waiting another five weeks to open.

"It's devastating news financially, he said. "Thinking about another five weeks of this is really hard to wrap my mind around."

Other gym owners said they likewise had been preparing for weeks to welcome people back, with some installing ultraviolet light air purification systems, buying backpack sprayers to sanitizer equipment and bringing in professional cleaning crews.

Cory and Allison Gibson had opened COR 4 Fitness in Chapel Hill a week before the pandemic forced them to shut down.

"We’ve considered everything to spacing out class times, already taking our small classes to even smaller if we have to, shutting down areas of our current gym that are group areas," Allison Gibson said.

COR 4 also will have extra sanitizing supplies, close locker rooms and reduce the size of fitness classes.

Planet Fitness locations had set up touch-less check-in, spacing of cardio machines and sanitizing stations. Other area gyms said they planned to offer outdoor workout options in addition to indoors, taped off areas inside the gyms for social distancing and rescheduled classes to provide more time for cleaning and less interaction among people.

But Kathryn Smith, the owner of Yoga off East in Durham, said she didn't plan to reopen until early July, even if Cooper had given the go-ahead this weekend.

"I don’t know for sure, in our specific neighborhood and our city, what the likelihood is of COVID spreading in a yoga class," Smith said. "I’ve heard enough information about keeping physical distancing. ... Some gyms have big, open spaces. My studio is about 800 square feet."

She said she also expects people to have some anxiety about resuming normal life, so she wants to make sure people are emotionally and mentally ready to return before she reopens.

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