THE WASHINGTON POST – It was just after seven on a Sunday morning in July when Carly Saveraid decided it was time to send the email she had spent days mulling over. She fired up her computer, plugged in the address of her Denver health club, Endorphin, and composed a simple message.
“Hi endorphin,” Saveraid, 25, typed. “Sadly I need to place my membership on hold.”
Guilt gnawed at Saveraid as she pressed “send”. She had just severed her connection to a community that had been a source of positivity in her life for roughly two years.
“It felt like I was letting down someone I cared about,” she said.
But the lingering guilt was still outweighed by her concern about contracting or transmitting the novel coronavirus.
“I’m not really questioning the decision at this point because there is such an unknown,” said Saveraid, who in pre-pandemic times went to the gym every morning before work and occasionally on the weekends. “And so I’m just kind of like, ‘All right. Better safe than sorry’.”
In America’s pandemic-afflicted reality, “better safe than sorry” is a mentality that has been adopted by many who once considered their gyms and studios second homes, and the communities they created there a second family. Making the choice to leave, even temporarily, is one that can weigh heavily.
“I feel really guilty that I’m not helping them out anymore,” Saveraid said of Endorphin, noting that she had for a while been paying her USD110 monthly fee even though she stopped going. “Financially it wasn’t something I could really keep doing anymore when I realised I didn’t want to go to in-person classes. It was like, okay, this was something I tried to do out of the goodness of my heart, but it’s an expensive commitment.”
Before the pandemic, Diana Wang, 29, could be found at her Los Angeles yoga studio multiple times days a week, often making plans for coffee, tea or a walk with classmates before or after sessions.
“I got my workout in the class, but it was also kind of like a spiritual experience and a big source of connection and community,” Wang said. “What made me feel like it was home is the friendships that I’ve made.”
These days, Wang said, she is “very conflicted” about the prospect of returning once Los Angeles allows indoor group exercise again – a feeling she said she shares with some of the friends she has made in class.
“From moment to moment I will have different feelings about it,” she said. “I could see myself signing up and telling my friends that I usually go with that I may go this weekend if the option is there… Or I might freak out the day of and be like, ‘No, no, no, this is not worth it.’ “
Siena Vendlinski, 23, of Santa Barbara, California, describes this inner turmoil as a “conflict of mind and heart”.
When her CorePower Yoga studio re-opened several months ago, she recalled watching from her house as people walked to class. It would be easy to join them, Vendlinski thought, and reconnect with staff and instructors she had grown close with in her years of daily classes. “I wanted to so badly,” she said. The classes were at “super reduced capacity” to ensure social distancing, and locker rooms had been closed off, Vendlinski said.
Yet she stayed home, opting for the studio’s live-streamed classes.
“If I get sick or I get somebody else sick and then the reason was because I listened to my compulsion telling me that I needed to go, that would feel bad and be dangerous,” she said. “And what if somebody died because I couldn’t control my compulsiveness?” A state mandate has since banned indoor classes in many California counties, so Vendlinski will be doing Zoom yoga for the foreseeable future.
For Orangetheory regulars Jane Perlman and her husband, Marc, no amount of safeguards will be enough to assuage their concerns as long as coronavirus cases are still rising. “They’re using great precautions and things like that,” said Marc Perlman, 61. “But I’m just not comfortable yet.”
His wife has diabetes, he said, an underlying condition linked to severe coronavirus complications.
“It’s not worth risking coming down with it,” Jane Perlman, 56, said. “Even though I do really miss the camaraderie.”
The studio environment was “vibrant”, Marc Perlman said, a feeling that doesn’t quite translate online.
“The coaches were motivating,” he said. “The coaches are your friends. They help you succeed together, they ask you what your intentions are, they make you think.” And at the end of every class, there were high-fives all around. “A lot days you really need it,” he said.
To support the studio and its instructors, Jane Perlman said, she continued to pay her monthly membership fee before ultimately deciding to pause it.
“We all tried to contribute to the employees, and some of us sent them gifts because we didn’t want them to lose their jobs and we don’t want the studio to close,” she said.
But for now, the Perlmans have found alternatives.
“We’re walking a tonne,” Marc Perlman said, and they recently bought a Peloton bike.
A Peloton now occupies space in Sharon Murray’s West Hartford, Connecticut, home, too – an “impulse buy” that serves as a constant reminder of her fractured indoor cycling group.
“Really nothing else would’ve brought us together except this gym,” said Murray, 51, who for years was a regular at her local fitness centre. “It just is different families and different people, and all of a sudden you’re so excited to see them.”
Then, the coronavirus shuttered her gym. Several weeks later, Murray was clicking “order” on the Peloton.
“I did it. I betrayed them all,” she said. “I always swore I never would buy one because of my community, but I never knew a pandemic could hit.”
She added: “I almost feel guilty admitting to them that I bought one and owning up to the fact that the group might break up. It kind of breaks my heart.”
Murray noted that “a gym loss is very minor in the big scheme of what people have lost throughout this from lives to jobs to security”, but that what many are really missing are the human connections those spaces provided.
Though she doesn’t see herself going back to class, she hopes she can maintain the friendships she found there. “I can try and keep in touch, but if you don’t have those bonding times of seeing each other and exchanging your experiences in real life, will they really be as big a part of my life?” she said.
But as loyal Chicago SoulCyclers Brandon Krisko and Gabrielle DiBenedetto have discovered, going back in the middle of the pandemic may not be all that fulfilling, either.
“I was so happy to be back in that environment, and doing it again,” said Krisko, 23, who recently returned to a SoulCycle studio for the first time since the beginning of the shutdown. “But there’s also a sense of loss because it’s not the same as what we fell in love with.”
The normally packed class had only a handful of participants, spaced far apart. Masks had to stay on for the entire class. Even the instructor seemed less upbeat. “It almost felt like a post-apocalyptic version of SoulCycle,” Krisko said.
Similarly, DiBenedetto, 25, tried an outdoor session while visiting family in Boston and found herself inside a giant tent in a parking lot in broad daylight, a far cry from the usual dimly lit studio.
“I’m glad that I did it, but it didn’t fill the cup that I felt like was getting filled by the classes before,” she said.
Rather than start up their regular classes again, the two friends have attempted to re-create the studio experience at home. For DiBenedetto, that involved buying a SoulCycle exercise bike, which came with a grapefruit-scented candle to match the studio’s signature smell. Krisko has also incorporated candles into his home setup. Both try to exercise in semidarkness.
“My family judges me because I have two electronic candles that I put in front of me and they flicker while I’m working out,” Krisko said. “My parents are like, ‘Put those away. That’s not what those are for.’”
For a while, Saveraid did whatever she could to stay engaged with the community she’d found at Endorphin. She replaced her daily in-person classes with Zoom sessions. But after a couple months, “Zoom overload” set in, Saveraid said. The gym’s outdoor classes weren’t being offered near her, and she wasn’t willing to risk being indoors, even with Endorphin’s safety precautions like mandatory masks and reduced class sizes.
So she created her own Endorphin-inspired workouts and started trail running – all while continuing to pay for her membership with the hope that she would soon be back.
But as the months went by, Saveraid became less sure about her return, and by the summer, around the time coronavirus cases were again skyrocketing nationwide, she had made her choice.
Still, as she wrote the email to Endorphin in July, Saveraid recalled feeling like she had to “over-explain” her decision. “I wanted to communicate to them that it wasn’t an easy one for me to make,” she said.
Corina Lindley, who runs Endorphin with her husband, said Saveraid’s apology is one of many she has received in recent months.
“I’ll get a message in an email that says, ‘I’m so sorry to have to do this’, ‘We love Endorphin’ and ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can’,” Lindley said, adding that the gym has tried to accommodate its members’ needs. “It just breaks our heart… We miss seeing our community probably as much as they miss seeing us.”