While gyms are currently closed province-wide due to the government’s recent COVID-19 restrictions, several Brandon residents are speaking up about why they think these facilities should be considered an essential service during the pandemic.
Quentin Derhak is a regular at Anytime Fitness, a gym chain that gives members 24-hour access to workout equipment.
Derhak told the Sun on Friday that going to Anytime’s local gym every day around 3:30 a.m. has become part of his routine, so much so that it’s hard to get through a typical work week without it.
"It gives me that physical push I need every day to get rolling," he said. "That’s how I get focused. If I don’t go to the gym in the morning, I feel like a slob all day."
Needless to say, Derhak said on Friday that the previous week had been an adjustment, ever since the Manitoba government announced that, as of Nov. 12, the entire province would move into code red (critical) under the Pandemic Response System.
These new measures effectively shut down all personal service businesses and workout facilities in an attempt to stem the growing tide of COVID-19 that has increased to 8,122 active cases as of Sunday.
Because of these closures, Derhak said his rigorous workout plan has to be put on hold, since he doesn’t have access to any of his preferred bodybuilding equipment at home.
"Basically all you can do right now is watch your diet, try to get outside and work with what you have," he said. "I have a few items I can work with, a heavy bag and some kettlebells … but nothing even close to what I do at the gym itself."
However, Derhak’s bigger concern moving forward is people who rely on these facilities to either lose weight, gain some much-needed muscle or keep their mental health in check.
Without a supportive gym atmosphere or access to proper equipment, the Brandon bodybuilder fears these individuals will hit roadblocks and backslide into bad habits.
"For me and for a lot of us who are regulars of the gym, it’s just a setback," Derhak said. "But for people who are trying to get through some health issues and need that gym, I feel really bad for them."
Fellow Anytime Fitness member Ryan Pandolfi backs up Derhak’s claim, telling the Sun on Friday that the gym provided him with a safe haven throughout a very turbulent period.
Over the last seven months, Pandolfi not only lost his job and had to cancel several events for his organization, the Pandolfi Initiative, but the cumulative stress and anxiety from that misfortune caused him to lose 25 pounds on his already thin frame.
"So I turned to the gym as an escape to try and help my mental health," he said, revealing that he managed to regain all that weight in muscle. "I literally would not be here in the shape that I’m in today if it wasn’t for the gym."
But now that the gyms like Anytime are inaccessible due to code red, Pandolfi is concerned about how that will impact the mental health of similarly vulnerable people.
After all, Pandolfi will be three years sober in February and wonders if other alcoholics turned gym rats are desperately searching for a new routine right now.
"I’m very scared of my mental health faltering because of this," he said. "So I’m doing my best to keep the routine going, but it’s certainly very, very hard."
The recent round of gym closures is also having a financial impact on local business owners like Noel Harding, who has been running the Brandon Boxing Club for almost two decades.
Harding, who holds a 17-1 win-loss record as a professional boxer, told the Sun over the weekend that his gym’s staff has been adapting to the pandemic as best they can, spacing out their workout area and asking members to bring their own boxing gloves.
But while he thinks these recent health orders are in everybody’s best interest, Harding can’t deny the fact that the club’s closure is having a major impact on his bottom line.
"It’s been very, very financially stressful," he said. "The club is going behind in rent right now and I’m doing my best to try and look at other avenues to try and fund the program."
During Friday’s health briefing, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin stood by his decision to close gyms under code red, saying the province had to do something drastic to stop the widespread COVID-19 transmission they’re witnessing.
"We’re at a critical juncture right now," he said. "Although there’s a lot of benefits to being at a gym and being physically active, right now we need people to stay home."
But Derhak maintains that the province should not be concerned about local gyms like Anytime Fitness being sites of widespread transmission, since its staff and clients usually go out of their way to abide by the province’s health protocols.
"I helped move the equipment so everything was six feet apart and everybody is diligently cleaning things and they’re stepping out of the way," he said. "So I don’t think the spread is happening in places like that."
Plus, Derhak believes the province’s logic in keeping certain businesses open during this lockdown is suspect, especially if they are doing so under the premise of promoting health.
"For them to keep fast food restaurants open but close gyms seems counter-intuitive to me," he said. "Because there’s nothing really healthy about grabbing a greasy burger."
But for right now, all three men are attempting to get by as best they can, even though they think gyms are critical to maintaining people’s physical, mental and economic well-being during the coronavirus outbreak.
While Derhak and Pandolfi are sticking to home workouts, Harding is applying for the new Manitoba Bridge Grant, which provides a one-time payment of $5,000 to small- and medium-sized businesses.
Despite all this uncertainty, Harding is remaining optimistic about the future, having experienced his fair share of setbacks in the past, like when his club’s former home burned down in 2018.
"This is just another speed bump in the road and we will prevail," he said. "We will get through this."
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson