I’ve only seen it in person three times: A large gazebo style tent surrounded by chain-link fence. The first time I laughed. “No way,” I snickered, “seriously?” My children are embarrassed—perhaps they imagine my immature jeers can be heard, or even sensed, across the parking lot. Their worries aren’t entirely baseless—I am loud and rarely subtle. “I am so driving past that,” I taunt as I open our car’s trunk to load in the groceries. We’re in front of Grocery Outlet in Rohnert Park, and across the parking lot sits the mammoth 24 Hour Fitness tent that I have been gawking at since we left the store. Rather than taking the nearest exit, I drive to the far side of the lot, “because it’s easier to turn left onto Commerce at the light,” I explain. It is easier, as anyone knows who has ever attempted the alternative exit directly across from Safeway, closer to the Expressway and the never-ending barrage of traffic. However, I can admit that the lure of the tent, in a way amusing and comical, is my primary motivation. Underneath the tent, members sweat and huff away at their machines, vulnerable to the stares of passersby. Someone at a treadmill glares at me as we pass, which I don’t fault them for.
On a trip to the bank a few days after this I see it again. Members walk to and from their cars, some with towels draped over their shoulders, and two people, who appear to be employees, stand at the opening of the surrounding fence, prepared to greet those who come and go and talking with one another while watching over the activity inside. This time I sense a feeling of annoyance rising up within me. Sonoma County had just instituted a second stay-at-home order the day before. Outdoor dining was no longer permitted, hair salons and barbershops were directed to cease operations, and many other activities outside of work and essential services were put on hold—yet here remained this tent, proudly erect and surrounded by neighboring businesses, some of which had been forced to close while gyms across the state have been permitted to continue operations. Since the first implementations of pandemic-related restrictions, it has become apparent that our individual and collective interpretations of what is essential are subjective. Perhaps I have a general bias against gyms which prevents me from remaining entirely objective in my criticism. I could never really afford to belong to a gym or dedicate the time and effort necessary to gain any measurable benefit from its use. I had always gotten my exercise by alternative means—through necessity, during a time before I owned a car when my legs or a bicycle were my only mode of travel, or through play. A gym has never registered as essential with me, but that, arguably, is also subjective, a conclusion based on my own experience which may differ from another’s.
The morning I began to write this article I drove past the tent a third time, but not before picking up a coffee at a drive-thru shop on my way there. As was the case the time before, two employees stood at the entrance as gym-goers, although not as many this early in the morning, walked to and from their cars. I slowly circled around the tent, which in hindsight may have been somewhat off-putting for those inside, although my intention was only for clarity and understanding. According to the 24 Hour Fitness health protocols, members are required to wear masks inside the facility, they are also advised to maintain appropriate physical distance from other members as well as employees, sanitize machines before and after use, etc. From my limited viewpoint, it appeared as though this gym location, as well as its members, were adhering to state, local and company health guidelines. Although peak hours of operation, which I was not able to observe, may or may not provide a different picture, they were, in this snapshot, following all of the rules. The gym members were further away from each other than I was from the barista who handed me my coffee.
I am out and about, not unlike many other members of my community, far more often than I should be under the current circumstances. I don’t have the luxury of shopping in bulk as some may have—my refrigerator is too small and my bank account too empty. Having a child with additional/different needs, I am also often compelled to more frequently venture out for necessary supplies. Although I have tried my best to follow guidelines and keep myself and others safe, I have broken some of the rules, so to speak, just as many others have. This is not to say, definitively, that it is safe or appropriate for gyms to remain open, but that as our own individual practices have the potential for flaws, so does our government’s and so do the businesses. As we should question our own subjectivities, we should also question the subjective reality of our governing entities—their motivations and their reasoning.
According to Sonoma County, gyms are allowed to remain open outdoors to facilitate health and wellness through exercise, but it can be argued that there are safer, more accessible means of achieving this. Adding to this, I have heard, from my neighbors, my friends, and my family, frequent expressions of confusion about the guidelines our state and local governments have been using to determine what can stay open and what needs to close. This confusion stems, mainly, from the seemingly vague nature of any existing guidelines. Who is making these decisions and how do the make them? Are there instances where influence, rather than health-related science, might play a role in these determinations? In light of the significant pushback from the fitness industry against pandemic-related restrictions in comparison to other, lesser equipped industries, and with the absence of clear guidelines and communication from our policy makers, it may appear as though the squeakiest wheel does in fact get the grease.