Joanna Pease, owner of Jibe Cycling Studio, and her husband, Andy Pease, help Jibe members load stationary bikes into their cars Wednesday. On Tuesday morning, Pease came up with the idea to let her members take stationary bikes home so they can watch recorded classes and work out at home. Within minutes of opening the bikes up to be claimed, over 150 people asked for them. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In what feels like another lifetime, before the coronavirus changed everything, Joanna Pease was supposed to open a new Jibe Cycling Studio in Yarmouth on Friday. But now, thanks to the pandemic, that club is stalled, awaiting a final municipal permit, and her first studio in Portland is closed.

“It has been devastating,” Pease said. “Everybody is very unsettled, very emotional. We all know closing is the right thing to do, but we all counted on this place, this community. Some for our physical health, some for our mental well-being, some for our income. It’s so hard.”

Like other service businesses, fitness clubs like Jibe are struggling to work out a coronavirus strategy that will enable their members, staff and business to survive the pandemic, scrambling to keep up with rapidly evolving public health guidance and government edicts at the local, state and national level.

On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills urged fitness centers to close their doors and banned all nonessential gatherings of 10 or more people in an executive order intended to slow the community spread of the coronavirus. As of noon Thursday, Maine had 52 confirmed cases.

“She did not take these steps lightly because she understands that these actions will impact businesses and people across the state, but she also believes more aggressive action was required to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Maine,” said Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete.

Epidemiologists from Maine to Minnesota are echoing Mills’ call to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more to limit the spread of the virus, which appears to be transmitted when infected people cough or sneeze and their respiratory droplets land on others nearby, or on surfaces soon touched by others.

Although scientists have much to learn about the new virus, it appears vulnerable to hand washing and the kinds of disinfectant wipes used at most gyms, said Meghan May, professor of infectious disease at University of New England. But that doesn’t mean that any one gym is safe.

Gyms have so many surfaces to be touched that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to completely sanitize every square inch of the exercise equipment, May said. Even if that was possible, scientists still don’t know how long the coronavirus can remain suspended in the air around a stationary bike or yoga mat.

“So many surfaces at a gym, and so much more face touching than we realize as we wipe away sweat or we drink from our water bottles,” May said. “A gym could be made safe in theory, yes, but it’s so unlikely, and we would never know if it wasn’t (safe). … I wouldn’t risk it.”

Joanne Black, right, of Cape Elizabeth works out Wednesday as Crossfit Beacon holds a class outdoors at Fox Field in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

As the oldest state in the nation, Maine needs to be especially vigilant to protect its large aging population from COVID-19, which has a higher death rate among its older victims, said Greg Poland, a director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine research group and a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America.

The people working out at the gyms may be able to shake off a COVID-19 infection with few consequences, but if they spread the virus at the gym they could end up spreading it to vulnerable groups they live with or work with or simply stand next to at the grocery store when they sneeze, he said.

“You have the oldest demographic in the nation, with a lot of people most at risk,” Poland said. “Even if the most vulnerable stay at home, if those who aren’t so vulnerable are spreading it at the gym, at the bar or at a party, it will catch up to you. You won’t have the title of oldest in the nation for much longer.”

Every fitness business has been handling the pandemic in its own way. Some, like Reve Cycling Center in Portland, closed last weekend, before any government recommendation. Others, like Curves in Westbrook, are still open, keeping their classes small and disinfecting the equipment after each use.

Not that Curves owner Dori Flynn has to worry about turning people away to keep classes small. She said most of her members, 90 percent of whom are 60 years of age or older, are staying home, but she said she is staying open for members who want private training or a small circuit class.

At Curves, classes are prepaid, so she can hold on for a while, but Flynn is worried about the membership cancellations and refund requests to come if the pandemic stretches on. That is why she is remaining open to any member call that happens to come in now.

Andy Pease helps a Jibe Cycling Studio member load a stationary bike into their car Wednesday. Jibe is letting members take stationary bikes home so they can watch recorded classes and work out there. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Hopefully there will be a stimulus,” Flynn said of possible business assistance. “That would be a blessing.”

Bay Club Fitness in Portland had remained open after the city of Portland asked fitness centers to go dark. Members kept coming, eager for the workout. Owner Tracy Moore worried that closing before she received a direct order from the government could sink her 20-year business.

“Everybody is talking about sticking together right now, and that’s what we’d all like to do, but the day will come when the health crisis is over and the bills come due,” Moore said. “Words like a government recommendation aren’t going to cut it when you’re applying for government aid or an insurance payout.”

As the week progressed, a few members complained, but most, including at last one doctor, thanked her.

Moore shut her doors on Wednesday after Mills asked fitness centers to close for two weeks, but vowed to reopen on April 1 unless the government issues an explicit closure order or confirms that businesses such as hers will still be eligible for pandemic-related aid or insurance coverage if they stay closed.

But lawyer Kevin Haley with Brann & Isaacson of Portland, who has been helping clients navigate COVID-19, said most business insurance policies excluded pandemic-related business interruption payouts after a slew of SARS-related claims in the early 2000s.

Crossfit Beacon coach Meagan Leach watches members exercise at Fox Field in Portland on Wednesday. Leach encouraged members to stay six feet apart. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Haley would advise clients to close their businesses, especially gyms, if they feel it is in the best interest of their clients, families or the community. Most state and national officials seem eager to curb the economic fallout of the mass closures, and are working on pandemic-specific bailout packages.

Haley took his own advice. He decided to close down his gym, CrossFit Yarmouth, on Wednesday, after a week of upping sanitary practices and scaling down class sizes. He is now moving classes online for those members who continue at-home exercise, and lending out dumbbells and kettlebells.

“I tell my clients, don’t turtle up and be afraid to take a step because of some experience you may have had in the past, because this is changing every day and it’s really not like anything we’ve gone through before,” Haley said. “There is always risk, but there’s a risk to doing nothing, too.”

Other gyms closed their doors during the week as their host cities asked, but did not mandate them to do, or when customers began staying home to limit their own exposure or when they stopped commuting into work. Others closed when they could not figure out a way to limit the number of people at the gym.

Others are getting creative, shuttering their physical spaces but moving their classes online, like Lila East End Yoga in Portland or the dance fitness class at NXGen Fitness in Scarborough. Some are even taking it outside, like CrossFit Beacon in Portland, which began holding classes in Fox Field on Wednesday.

Careful to stay at least 6 feet apart, the nine club members used dumbbells, kettlebells, jump ropes, and at least one mostly full water bottle that they had brought from home or signed out of the gym to get their endorphins flowing to the beat of a Jack Johnson song playing from the owner’s parked truck.

“With everything going on right now, I really needed this,” said Nathan Sanborn, the owner of Rising Tide Brewery, to Beacon owner Kristen Moustrophis after the class ended. “For at least an hour, I got out of my head. I’ve had so much on my mind this week. Thank you.”

For Sanborn, that included furloughing most workers until his dine-in and restaurant supply business has come back. It was a painful decision that he couldn’t avoid, but he said it had kept him up at night anyway. The CrossFit Beacon class was his outlet for emotional and physical release, he said.

At Jibe, Pease decided to go a step further. She had 75 commercial-grade bikes sitting in the studio unused and a “tribe” of customers telling her they didn’t know what they were going to do if they couldn’t get their spin fix. She put out a feeler to see if clients would want to rent a bike to use in their own home.

“We sold out in 30 seconds,” Pease said. “I put out the word at 6 p.m. and by 6:30, I had 250 emails. It was incredible.”

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