Rafael Arenas

Rafael Arenas wipes down a punching bag at his Grand Avenue fitness studio.

At the start of the year, Rafael Arenas was working long days, spending 17 or 18 hours guiding clients through boxing, weightlifting and cardio exercises at Perfect Specimen Fitness, the Nogales gym where he offers one-on-one fitness training.

It was hard work, Arenas said, but he enjoyed his time at the Grand Avenue business he’s built on his own in a little more than three years.

In early March – before Gov. Doug Ducey’s March 19 order to close fitness center – Arenas closed the gym in an effort to keep his customers said, he said. “I have clients that are very elderly and could get sick easily. I have clients who are younger kids who really don’t care about the pandemic, unfortunately.”

Since then, he has tried adapting his business to online coaching, reopened with new safety measures in place in May after the governor allowed it, then shut down all over again when Ducey closed gyms for a second time on June 29.

“Emotionally, it was kind of like taking a beating again,” Arenas said on Thursday. “I had just recovered!”

Arenas and other gym owners have dealt with a rotating set of challenges related to safety concerns, a lengthy closure and a reopening that ended abruptly last month, just six weeks after it began.

At least one local gym closed permanently after revenues dropped off due to the pandemic. Others have tried replicating classes via Zoom, adjusting workouts for clients who no longer have access to training equipment. And two dealt with the most recent closure by ignoring it – until the police showed up.

Dinora Aguilar said that starting UrbanFit studio, a pole fitness center in Nogales that opened last summer, meant realizing a dream for her. Then the pandemic hit.

When clients stopped coming in and revenue dropped earlier this year, she said, her landlord offered to lower the rent. She also looked into a loan that could have kept the gym afloat. But the loan was only available to businesses that had been open for at least one year and the gym’s income wasn’t enough to keep the lights on.

In May, Aguilar made the tough decision to close the doors for good.

“It’s the last thing I thought about when I opened the business,” Aguilar said of the pandemic. “I looked at all of the factors, I did a market study… The only thing you don’t think about is this kind of thing.”

At Desert Sky Gymnastics and Cheer, a popular youth summer program was cut off by the mandatory closure on June 29. Kevin Hecht, whose wife Bania Hecht is the principal coach at the gym, said the summer program would resume once the order is lifted.

Hecht said the gym had adopted its gymnastics and cheerleading classes to the evolving health and safety recommendations. “We have to limit what we do to whatever the orders are… we just base our classroom and our instruction based off whatever that guidance might be,” he said.

Planet Fitness, the national chain that opened a Nogales location earlier this year, had a message posted on its website this week stating that the location closed on June 29 in keeping with the state order. A Facebook page for the local location has shared YouTube videos in recent weeks featuring workouts led by Planet Fitness instructors from around the country.

Out of the comfort zone

For many gyms offering classes or individual fitness instruction, the natural option has been to go online. But that’s easier said than done.

Aguilar said that a short foray into online classes didn’t go well for her gym. “The activities that we did at UrbanFit depend a lot on the equipment and the attention is very personalized. They’re exercises that you need an instructor there to help you, so you don’t hurt yourself,” she said.

Desert Sky hadn’t tried replicating its classes online, Hecht said, but did send out conditioning workouts for cheerleaders to help them stay in shape until the gym can reopen.

Arenas said he’d modified routines for clients to do at home, which limited their options: “There’s only so many times you can tell somebody to do a squat for lower body, there’s only so many times you can tell somebody to do a pushup for upper body.”

And, he added, “It’s not that same satisfaction as having somebody accomplish something in person.”

At CrossFit Tutuli on Mariposa Road, Daniel Magaña, who co-owns the gym with his wife Natalie Lopez, said they’d tried several different strategies since the outbreak started.

After the March closure, Tutuli started posting working videos on social media channels, but the response was mixed. They stopped the videos and tried renting out the gym’s equipment to members, which brought in some income after many regular clients put memberships on hold.

In May, the gym reopened with new safety procedures and limited class sizes. But Magaña also started preparing to launch an at-home fitness program, which was set to begin around the time of the June closure.

“This second shutdown, we were way, way better prepared,” he said.

Tutuli quickly added a second at-home program and also started hosting outdoor group workouts at local parks, designing the outdoor workouts around basic equipment, like dumbbells, that the gym’s staff can pack into a car.

At the beginning of the crisis, Magaña said, he feared he would lose the business. But, in retrospect, he also saw an upside to the challenges that forced the gym to adapt in recent months: “It got me out of my comfort zone.”

No exceptions

With businesses growing frustrated with the extended shutdowns, the owners of Phoenix-area gyms brought two separate lawsuits against the governor to try to stop the latest closure. But judges rejected pleas for a temporary restraining order from both Scottsale, Ariz.-based Mountainside Fitness and national chain Xponential Fitness.

Local gym operators haven’t taken any legal action, but a few did keep the doors open even after the most recent statewide order kicked in.

That led to a citation for Emanuel Tapia, the owner of Fitness Fortress on Grand Avenue. When Nogales police officers showed up to the gym last Friday morning, Tapia was working with an individual client.

Tapia told the officers that he knew he was in violation, but had stayed open because it was a tough time for the business, according to a Nogales Police Department report.

In a follow-up conversation with the NI, Tapia said the gym had transitioned from group classes to individual training since the pandemic started and, after complying with the initial shutdown, only 10 to 15 percent of the gym’s clients returned, leaving him concerned about the business’ future.

“It’s been a tough situation… I see maybe one or two clients on a daily basis, and that’s just to try and get rent together,” he said.

NPD closed down operations last Wednesday at Fitness Express, a gym on the corner of Grand Avenue and Mariposa Road.

According to a report filed by an NPD officer, the owner said the gym was only open to customers with appointments, “essential workers,” or people with doctor’s orders to use the gym. The officer informed him that the governor’s order didn’t include exceptions for those reasons and told everyone to leave the building.

Reached on the phone last Friday, Fitness Express owner Ken Larriva didn’t directly answer questions about whether or not the gym was still open, but seemed to suggest again that there was an exception for essential workers.

“Everybody’s trying to get on the same page with the same message,” said Larriva, who is considered an essential worker as a Nogales Fire Department employee. “It is essential that essential workers maintain their health and wellbeing.”

Larriva was not cited.

Also last Friday morning, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputies visited another gym owned by Larriva, the Rio Rico Fitness Center. Sgt. Santiago Gonzales said the department received two calls about the facility last week, including one in which a caller said there were 10 or more cars outside the gym.

On July 10, Gonzales said, deputies went to the gym and spoke to the owner about the rules, but ultimately didn’t find any violations of the order. Gonzales said the clients at the gym were apparently receiving physical therapy, which is allowed.

Mesta and Gonzales both said they thought the gym closures were the first actions their departments had taken for violations of orders related to the pandemic.

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