Google “male CrossFit instructor,” and you might get an idea of what Austin Begiebing looks like: tall and fit, sporting some stubble and some joggers. It’s obvious he prepared to become a fitness instructor for a while before becoming one. What he wasn’t prepared for — like many others in his trade — was teaching fitness during a pandemic.
But under the right circumstances, Begiebing — like many other fitness center owners — thinks he can operate indoors safely. This is despite directives from the state and county saying he can’t.
“If we’re going to lock down for a few months to eradicate this virus to prepare for the surge that’s going to come, I’m all for it,” Begiebing said. “But the longer it drags on, we have to look at risk versus reward.”
Adding to the confusion: the county recently lifted its stay-at-home order after it reported increased ICU capacity at its local hospitals. The move has led to a patchwork layout of opened and closed businesses across county lines. While the shift to the purple tier has been welcome news for dozens of local businesses, indoor fitness centers remain excluded, and in the dark.
Governor Gavin Newsom is facing increased scrutiny after his many directives aimed at fighting the COVID-19 pandemic have been fraught with mixed messages and poor communication. Conflicting data has led to mass confusion and a massive backlog in vaccine distribution.
This has all led in part to a growing movement calling on Newsom to loosen restrictions on indoor fitness activities. Currently, the state and county have mandated that gyms and fitness centers move their operations outdoors.
Buying an adequate tent, faux grass mats, and other outdoor equipment has cost Begiebing over $1,500. That’s already on top of paying rent while less revenue comes in, federal aid notwithstanding.
Things were looking up in the summer of 2020, however: Santa Clara County gyms were finally given the OK to reopen in July. But just a day later, the state reversed course with its reopening efforts in response to a soaring COVID case count, which meant CrossFit Milpitas had to close yet again.
“This took the wind out of our sails,” Begiebing said. “I was burnt out emotionally, spiritually just drained.”
County leaders have pointed to the region’s concerning COVID-19 numbers to justify mandating outdoor-only activities for nonessential businesses, saying Santa Clara County is experiencing “very high rates of COVID-19 transmission,” per a January 25 statement from County Health Officer Sara Cody.
“As long as Santa Clara County remains in the Purple Tier of the State’s Blueprint, gyms and fitness facilities cannot operate indoors,” a county spokesperson said in a statement.
But look closer, says former United States Surgeon General Richard Carmona, and fitness centers might not be the superspreader businesses most states believe they are.
California and Oregon are currently the only states that have not lifted their restrictions on indoor fitness centers. The 48 other states have mostly reopened indoor gyms, with many states mandating social distancing in them.
“The science and data have demonstrated that indoor fitness can reopen safely and that the industry is of critical importance of mental and physical health,” Carmona stated in his California State Fitness Plan.
But it’s data, Rudy Ott of Smash Gyms said, that has fallen on deaf ears.
“I know we can be safe. We were saying this to the state and county since April,” Ott said. “Especially gyms like CrossFit gyms, martial arts gyms, and fitness centers like Smash that are group-instructor led. We have control over the environment.”
With less equipment and clients than a traditional gym, fitness centers like Smash and CrossFit Milpitas say it’s “unfair” they’ve been grouped with all fitness centers.
While indoor fitness centers still remain closed, both Ott and Begiebing have pledged to do whatever they can to keep their customers coming back. That’s if their reserve funds and mental health allow them to do so. For Begiebing, fitness is all he’s ever known. And doing it in person, he said, forges a bond with clients that can’t be replicated virtually.
“If this continues, I might shift to an all-outdoor venue. Or buy some GameStop stock,” he joked.