DENTON: Another shutdown would devastate already hurting businesses

FILE - In this Friday, June 26, 2020 file photo, people wear masks while exercising at a gym in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Ashley Thompson Denton is a Raleigh, N.C. gym owner.

March 23, 2020, was a day that forever changed my way of living and how I viewed things around me. Due to COVID-19, Gov. Roy Cooper banned gatherings of more than 50 people and ordered gyms, salons and movie theaters to close. At the time, there were 11 COVID patients in the hospital and zero reported deaths. One week later, Cooper forced the statewide lockdown of all nonessential business.

I disagreed with the shutdown from the beginning. I believed it was unconstitutional, but “15 days to slow the spread” was something I was willing to do since COVID was so new and unknown. As a CrossFit affiliate owner, I seldom get any rest. I looked forward to enjoying a couple of lighthearted books I had wanted to read, “Why Waco?” and “The Coddling of the American Mind.” I joke about the lighthearted part, as “Why Waco?” exposes the massive government overreach in Waco, Texas, with David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers. “The Coddling of the American Mind” discusses American college campuses, the growing hatred of freedom of speech, and American cancel-culture. Interesting timing.

Along with many North Carolinians, I learned that “15 days” quickly became weeks, and then weeks became months. As the saying goes, people join CrossFit for the workouts, but they stay for the community. The extended shutdown meant the loss of our gym’s significant community. My husband and I hustled to adapt to our new, unknown, unstable and uncontrollable environment. We programmed at-home workouts, made demo videos in our PJs, loaned out gym equipment and worked to keep our community active through social media. However, the longer we were shut down, the more members we lost.

In July, Yelp published their Economic Impact Report, which stated 39% of all gyms and fitness centers had permanently closed. We were still operating in July, but the looming fear of closure was becoming more of a reality by the day. Thankfully, our landlord supported us during the shutdown and allowed us to pay partial rent for July and August. Our saving grace was our inexpensive warehouse rent.

Fast forward to September — Cooper finally announced that North Carolina would enter Phase 2.5 and gyms would be allowed open at 30% capacity. A second report in September affirmed permanent business closures had continued to rise with a 34% increase since July. When we reopened, we were operating with a 40% loss in revenue, and four CrossFit affiliates I knew of in the Triangle had permanently closed down.

The shutdown didn’t work before; why would we do it again?

Currently, we are operating at about a 10% deficit. A rush of new members joined when we first reopened, but the sign-ups have slowed down significantly due to the increased concern of rising COVID cases throughout the state. The latest update from NCDHHS from Nov. 18 lists North Carolina’s daily percent positive rate as 9.2%. However, not all 100 counties in North Carolina have the same rate. Wake County, where my gym operates, has a daily percent positive rate of 5.6% and is listed as having a low hospital impact. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this information and as a result many are afraid to return to their usual daily activities, such as going to the gym.

There is plenty of speculation going on within the gym industry regarding another shutdown. Everyone is nervous. We all have friends who had to make the painful decision to shut down their gym. Those of us remaining are still trying to recover from six months of not being allowed to operate. If 40% of gyms permanently shut down the first time, I’m afraid more than half those remaining would permanently shut down the second time. We would be going into a dog fight already wounded and tired. Many of us wouldn’t make it out.

One of the most infuriating things about all of this is that local and state governments are not spending the necessary time to make the best decisions for their communities. Blanket solutions are lazily being implemented with disastrous consequences. These decisions seem to be made with the mindset of “sacrifice a few to save many,” but there is no validity to that with COVID. In fact, studies show a correlation between locking down our economy and a greater increase of the virus.

Those like me trying to earn a living a build a business stand to lose everything through no fault of our own. The shutdown didn’t work before; why would we do it again?

Ashley Thompson Denton owns DFX CrossFit in Raleigh and was Wake County chair for Dan Forest for Governor.