The mayor has one timetable. The governor has another. And Broadway’s still working out the details.
But the whole story of New York’s painful shutdown and the city’s post-COVID reopening can be found at the bottom of a basement stairway near the corner of William and Ann streets at the grittier, northern end of the lower Manhattan Financial District.
The city-mandated closings. The scattering of the clients. The layoff of the staff. The excruciating negotiations with the landlord. The long-delayed reawakening. The rigid precautions, gradually easing. And then the vaccine.
“For us, the arrival of the vaccine has been a light-switch moment,” said Andrew Benson, a friendly man with a full beard who looks like he could probably bench press a Lamborghini. “The shot was available. People got it. They’re feeling safer now, and they aren’t just trickling back. They’re really coming. I’m getting calls, ‘Are you guys open? Are you accepting new clients? I’m ready to return.’”
Benson co-owns Oculus Fitness, a low-frills but highly programmed gym that, pre-COVID, had become a word-of-mouth favorite among overstressed Wall Streeters and savvy downtown residents. The clients trooped down those stairs into the brightly lit 5,000-square-foot basement for grueling strength-and-conditioning workouts that Benson and his coaches closely supervised.
The gym went dark last March, along with every other fitness center, yoga studio, nail salon and blowout bar in New York. The first week in September, the state threw the gyms a thin lifeline—reduced capacity and careful precautions—allowing Benson to welcome a few old members back. Then, a few more and a few more. “But we weren’t seeing many new faces,” he said.
For the past eight months, he’s been running the gym alone, starting his days at 6 a.m. and saying good night at 9 p.m. while leading every group workout. Following city guidelines, he thoroughly reworked his programming for the COVID era. He taped off individual workout spaces so no two members would be within 10 feet of each other. No shared equipment. No towels and no chalk. Daily temperature checks and mandatory face masks. Hospital-grade sanitary wipes and a wet-vac machine that looked like a mini-Zamboni. And he reimagined the daily workouts to emphasize body weight exercises and limit the use of equipment.
“You showed up, you got in your square, and you stayed there,” Benson said. “Then, as we got slowly more comfortable as a group, it was, ‘OK, go grab a PVC pipe…Grab a dumbbell…Grab a kettlebell. And be sure to wipe everything down when you’re done. It’s been a learning process for everyone. I still feel like I’m the guy turning up the heat on the boiling frog. ‘OK, we’re gonna add this next thing.’”
At the same time, he was applying for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program and trying to negotiate with the landlord. “At first, they had less than zero interest in working with us,” the gym owner said. “But our revenues were a fraction of what they had been. We just couldn’t pay what we were paying before. Eventually, I think they came to believe us. They realized a little bit of money was better than no money at all.”
And let’s be honest: Who else but another gym would fill this kind of space? Not too many gyms were opening in the depths of the pandemic.
There were weeks he wasn’t sure the business would survive, Benson said. But once his old members started getting vaccinated and new people, also vaccinated, began showing up—well, some kind of tide was turned.
“Last month was our biggest month since all this started, and this month is looking even better,” he said. And that’s before most Financial District offices are full again. “I’m hearing from people at Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AIG, all the places we draw from,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m coming back to the office in June or July. As soon as I’m back in the neighborhood, I’ll be back at the gym.’”
Suddenly, he’s looking for staff again and finding the same thing the city’s restaurants are: Fourteen months of COVID shutdowns convinced a lot of potential employees to move out of high-price New York. “Finding good employees is going to be a challenge,” Benson said.
Something else the COVID isolation has taught: Working out at home alone isn’t quite the same.
“People desire that human connection,” Benson said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Other than my spouse, you’re the only person I’ve talked to today.’ People have been isolated. That sense of community is something a lot of people realize they wanted more than they knew.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.