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We are entering unprecedented times as community recreation centers. States are beginning to allow gyms to open under new guidelines, often with limited capacity and smaller group exercise class sizes.

Congregating in groups is not allowed. Social distancing is a must. So how do we as leaders bring back a sense of community in our recreation centers with these new guidelines in place?

New statistics and guidelines are released on what seems like an hourly basis, constantly changing and evolving. Sure, following guidelines is easy. We need to space out our treadmills?  Easy. We need to limit class sizes? Easy. We need to take temperatures as people enter our facility? Easy.

It’s easy to look at guidelines on paper and make them become a reality. And yes, I know these aren’t necessarily sustainable from a financial standpoint.

What’s missing, however, is what these guidelines do to our feeling of community. People come to our centers not only to workout, but to bond and connect with friends. Having your workout buddies in a class with you is motivating. While online workouts have become the new necessity, there isn’t a sense of togetherness when I have to watch a computer screen instead of my favorite instructor and workout friends in the same room.

As more centers are adding virtual components for their members, are we still addressing the thing that makes us unique from a simple gym? I’ve heard of some centers purchasing pre-recorded virtual fitness plans from fitness companies in lieu of hiring back their own group exercise instructors so they don’t have to pay the salaries, taxes, insurance, etc. That’s obviously a budgetary option, but again, aren’t we missing that human connection between instructor and member?

I’m also reminded it’s not only the community entering our centers, but the community we can reach out to that exists outside our walls. If we have done a good job prior to COVID-19, our communities see us leaders, an essential piece of our respective cities that would be sorely missed if we were to ever close for good.

We as recreation centers can stand out during this pandemic and give back to our communities that have been there for us when we needed them most — now is the time to give back.

Essential childcare, food delivery programs and calls to seniors — many recreation centers have been doing this since we have been forced to close. I challenge us to keep going long after we’re open. Are there things we are currently doing for our communities that can continue years down the line, once we return to our “new normal?”

As we start to reopen, it’s important to remember our members have varying degrees of comfort about coming back to our centers. The debate about wearing masks will continue.  Fears about sanitation will continue. The questions about virtual fitness will continue. It’s important for us as leaders of our recreation centers to listen to our communities’ fears and help guide them into a level of comfort.

While we are all adding signage about new rules that must be followed, is there a way to make some of them a little lighthearted and less scary? I saw a poster that said, “I See You Sweating There — Now Don’t Forget To Wipe Your Machine When You’re Finished.” It gets the cleaning message across while also adding a little levity. If laughter is the best medicine, is there a way to add some smiles to our members’ faces when they come back to the centers they love?

Our communities will look very different when we reopen. Baby Boomers now fall into the vulnerable population category and may not come back to our centers at first. Millennials may have increased fears since this is now just another economic downfall they’ve witnessed during their lifetimes. That being said, I think our community — emphasis on “community” — recreation centers can come back stronger than ever. We can keep connected with our members — we just have to get creative and lean in.


Bryan Snodgrass is the chief operating officer at the Burbank Community YMCA.


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