TUJUNGA, Calif.—Written in large block letters on the front windows of World Gym in Tujunga, California, are the words “Essential Business.” To the gym’s members, the words ring true.
Inside, loud classic rock music pours out through the speakers, as fewer than 10 men and women, ranging in age from the early 20s to late 50s, exercise. Other than the masks used by the people in training and the building’s reduced capacity, the environment feels nostalgic to the days before the pandemic.
“Everyone is doing their part, wearing their masks, wiping stuff down, social distancing,” Dario Lozano, a 31-year-old gym member from Sylmar, told The Epoch Times. “World Gym Tujunga is just as safe, if not safer, than any other store or business I go to.”
Before reopening on Dec. 1, owners Brian Prewitt and Steve Cuevas sent letters to the offices of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, notifying them that they were going to open safely while practicing the highest standards of health possible in their fitness center.
The two say they spent over $10,000 to prepare the facility. They’ve lost $500,000 in revenue since March and feel their only choice now is to open or close for good.
“We were good boys. We complied with the shutdowns, and we did not break the rules. We know the virus is a real thing, and we complied for months and shut down as long as we could,” Prewitt told The Epoch Times.
Upon entry, customers first have their temperatures checked. Customers must sign a health waiver.
Cardio machines and weightlifting equipment have been spaced to allow for social distancing on both floors, and like groceries and retail stores, the gym is operating at maximum 20 percent capacity. Disinfectant stations have been set up in locations throughout the building.
“Everyone on-site is required to wear a mask at all times,” Prewitt said. “We are only open 12 hours a day, from once being 24 hours.”
Carrie Cuddihy, a 25-year-old gym member from Tujunga, told The Epoch Times it was “so great being able to work out again at the gym.” She said “being able to release endorphins” in a relatively social setting was a “great change of pace.”
“I personally struggle trying to keep up on my workout routines in the home setting due to distractions and the mentality of simply winding down when I am home. … I feel I need to go elsewhere to complete my workouts,” Cuddihy said.
“Being committed to a workout routine within the gym setting along with socialization are such important components of good health.”
An Official Warning
Two weeks after they reopened, Prewitt and Cuevas started to receive telephone calls from Los Angeles health officials, warning them to shut down their operations to comply with government mandates that required indoor recreational facilities to remain closed as part of the state’s regional stay-at-home order. The order was extended indefinitely on Dec. 29 throughout the 11-county Southern California region due to surging COVID-19 hospitalizations.
The calls were soon followed by in-person visits from representatives of the mayor’s office, along with Los Angeles County Health Department officials, warning them again to close their doors.
“They were threatening us that we were going to lose our business,” Prewitt said. “I knew that they shut the power off at other businesses for not complying, so we bought power generators in case that happens here.”
Prewitt and Cuevas prepared by having a lawyer on standby, they said.
The two set up a GoFundMe page to help with legal fees and expenses; it has already raised over $8,500 toward a goal of $25,000. Any additional funds they acquire will be used for rent, utilities, and other bills that have accumulated during the gym’s seven-month closure.
Comments by contributors to the fund praise the duo for taking a stand.
“I donated because small businesses like gyms, restaurants, personal services, and places of faith are no less essential than any big box stores,” said contributor Leslie Skelly. “Common sense response to COVID-19 should be entrusted to all citizens.”
The Fight to Stay Open
Meanwhile, gyms throughout Southern California are engaged in legal battles as they fight to stay open. Fitness centers in Torrance, Azusa, Santa Clarita, Lancaster, and Palmdale were among those arguing their cases in courts throughout the region.
On Jan. 7, a judge issued an injunction against two Planet Fitness gyms in Lancaster and Palmdale, ordering them to shut down.
“These restrictions on indoor operations at fitness facilities have the object of preventing the airborne transmission of COVID-19 and to protect the public health and public safety from a contagious disease,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel wrote.
Like World Gym, the two gyms had been warned by officials in December that they could face legal ramifications if they didn’t shut down as ordered, but they had previously obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed them to operate until the case could be heard.
But gyms struggling to survive in Southern California were able to celebrate a small victory on Jan. 5 when the California Fitness Alliance won a round in court against the state Attorney General’s Office, after a judge refused to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint challenging the indefinite shutdown of indoor fitness establishments.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney ruled against the state Attorney General’s Office, stating that there was an “actual controversy” regarding the validity of the state’s orders and whether the government acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in closing fitness businesses at the statewide level.
For fitness centers like World Gym, the judgment created a much needed boost of confidence.
A Glimmer of Hope
Prior to the pandemic, the fitness industry was thriving, serving 71.5 million U.S. health club consumers in 2019, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
“When you actually see people you know get to change their life around and become happier and healthier, it’s really cool and rewarding,” Prewitt said. “It’s something I enjoy doing, so I never felt like I was going to work.”
But the positive performance of the past is no guarantee that the fitness industry will return to normal after the wreckage of 2020’s closures.
“I think there’s just a lot less people that are interested in going to a gym right now, and I think that’s going to have an ongoing effect,” said Prewitt.
As he and Cuevas continue to fight for the survival of their business, they hope to inspire other small business owners engaged in struggles of their own.
“We want to be a voice and inspiration for other businesses that are struggling with these shutdowns right now,” Prewitt said.
“We can’t afford to back down, because we’ll lose the business. We know other small businesses are in that pretty tough spot as well.”