OpEd: One Box Owner’s Opinion, “My CrossFit Gym is Not an Essential Business”

May 18, 2020 by
Photo credit: South Loop Strength and Conditioning
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I own a CrossFit gym in downtown Chicago.

We’ve been closed since the middle of March, shutting down in accordance with Illinois’s ruling that bars and restaurants close for in person dining.

Plans to reopen businesses are rolling out across the country with guidelines varying based upon the severity of the impact of the disease on a state as well as the political affiliation of each governor. CrossFit affiliate owners have been lobbied to have their gyms recategorized as essential businesses — hoping to move up in their local reopening timeline.

While I’d love to get back in the gym and start offering our members the community, the coaching, and the workouts that so many of them are missing, we are not an essential service.

Affiliate owners have argued that they will be able to maintain social distancing guidelines and that there is a huge need for services focusing on physical health. They’ve also cited the seeming hypocrisy of businesses like liquor stores being deemed “essential” while fitness businesses remain closed. (Don’t forget that alcohol withdrawal is a potentially life-threatening condition that sends a lot of folks to the emergency room.)

There are also severe economic implications for the fitness industry, with large, commercial chains are filing for bankruptcy and some affiliates closing permanently. In fact, we just had our first permanent closure in Chicago.

My own business is reeling with a 41% revenue drop in April. Based upon current guidelines in Chicago, I will be surprised if we are able to resume activity in the gym before the middle of June. Our staff have all taken a significant pay cut, we only paid part of our April rent, and I haven’t taken a paycheck since March.

While I would love to reopen my gym and get back to work, I’m concerned that the push to recategorize affiliates as essential will potentially do more harm than good.

I am sympathetic to the need for conversations with state legislatures about the exact mechanics of reopening regulations. Most politicians probably do not have a fine-grained view of the differences between CrossFit gyms and globo gyms.

CrossFit gyms probably can do a better job than large, corporate chains of maintaining social distancing guidelines and cleaning equipment between every use. Similarly, the network of people coming into a CrossFit gym is relatively small. A few hundred of the same people from the same area coming into a gym day after day is much less dangerous than, say, thousands of people coming from totally different regions and then returning to their own distinct social networks.

Ten people, each in their own 10’ by 10’ square, doing dumbbell snatches and wall balls is probably a relatively low risk activity.

However, during this reopening process, we are facing a huge collective action problem. CrossFitters are a largely healthy population with relatively low risk of having a seriously negative outcome from COVID-19.

This is a classic case of an externality.

Each individual athlete going to and from the gym is taking a small risk of infection and, even if they were infected, the danger to someone CrossFitting regularly is quite low. Still, by increasing exposure to other people, each athlete is increasing the risk that they become the vector that transmits the disease from one social network to another.

Just as a factory can dump industrial waste into a river that sickens the population downstream, healthy individuals do not have to bear the costs of spreading the disease.

While we can levy taxes on companies that pollute, there’s no simple way to make each individual feel the true cost of risky behavior during a pandemic. This is why most states issued “shelter in place” orders.

Within the CrossFit community, contrarians, conspiracy theorists, and radical individualists are overrepresented. Some of these folks doubt the seriousness of COVID-19. Some of these folks recognize the seriousness of COVID-19, but are skeptical of any state intervention. Some of them have very valid concerns about the ineptitude with which large bureaucratic entities have responded to a crisis. Some have concerns regarding the seemingly wild variation in predictive models used to guide policy — and the regular failures of those models to, you know, actually be accurate. And some of them think that a shadowy cabal of lizard people are running the world.

Contrarians and conspiracy theorists can be a great source of counterintuitive insight and heterodox thinking. Hell, none of us would be reading this now if it weren’t for the iconoclastic personality of one notable contrarian, Greg Glassman.

When dealing with contrarians, we are usually engaging in venture capital math: most companies that venture capitalists invest in go bust, some deliver a modest return, and a very small number deliver completely outsized returns that provide for the majority of the fund’s profits.

We see similar dynamics with contrarians. They are usually wrong, but occasionally offer deep, paradigm-shifting insight. However, we probably don’t want them making crucial public policy decisions during a global pandemic. Nor do we want radical individualists — who value personal liberty as the one ethic to rule them all — attempting to solve messy collective action problems.

Even as a purely selfish actor only out to maximize my economic gains from owning a CrossFit gym, I wouldn’t want my gym to open any earlier than is necessary to ensure that COVID-19 outbreaks are under control in my city.

While the economic consequences of forced closure have been severe, it’s not like business would be booming were it not for pesky government interventions. Restaurant bookings were declining catastrophically weeks before governments mandated sheltering in place. In Brazil — where the government has repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19 — organized crime took it upon themselves to enforce lockdowns.

It turns out that most people want to stay home as much as possible during the rapid, global spread of a dangerous disease.

Our best bet as a fitness industry to make it through the next several months is to get the disease under control so that people feel comfortable coming to the gym.

Chicago has issued reopening guidelines that are based not on specific dates, but are instead based on hitting certain numbers of daily tests as well as trends in new infections and hospital utilization. If we rush the reopening process, we increase the likelihood of a second wave of infections which means that we will have a more protracted and painful recovery.

As coaches, we all know the clients that go out too hot on every workout — then start shaving reps in the later rounds as they fatigue. It’s a lot easier to not do all the reps. But, by looking for the easy way out, we know the client is trading off their future success.

If we want to minimize the chances of a second round of shutdowns this fall, we need to do everything we can right now to slow the spread of COVID-19 and build up the public health infrastructure so that we are prepared for another wave of infections.

CrossFit gyms provide a very valuable service to our members. We’re the backbones of communities, and our members build health and resilience through training with us. We’re an important business. We’re a potentially life-changing business. But we are not an essential business.

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