FARGO — When the coronavirus pandemic reached the national emergency status, facilities around the country shut their doors in order to help flatten the curve and keep their communities safe. While many businesses are starting to open back up again, those high-traffic, high-respiratory-droplet facilities had to do some major thinking when it came to protecting the health of both workers and patrons alike.

For the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties, reopening has been very "Tortoise and the Hare"-like. Slowly and steadily, the health and wellness facilities have allowed for more access to areas for members as they get up to their new normal.

"I think (our situation) was unique because we have the two health and wellness facilities where we had to consider how we can keep it safe, one for the 22-year-old marathon runner, but (also) we have the 92-year-old lady who comes and does aqua classes and drinks coffee and things like that," said Member and Retention Director Luke Hommemrding. "We've still had so much to learn with who's at risk or who can be asymptomatically carrying it."

Social distancing is encouraged at all times while in the YMCA facilities. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum
Social distancing is encouraged at all times while in the YMCA facilities. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum

Beyond just keeping members safe, Hommerding and the rest of the staff at "The Y" have been working tirelessly to figure out how to support the community through this difficult and unprecedented time in history. From the beginning of the nationwide response to the pandemic, the YMCA worked to create a safe environment to help out all of its patrons — from 6 months old to 90-plus.

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"We found out who was essential in our society, right?" Hommerding said. "There's doctors and nurses and firefighters and police officers and all that, but there was also truck drivers and people who work in the grocery stores, and we serve a lot of those parents in our childcare facilities."

Although the fitness aspect of The Y had closed its doors, there was still a hum of activity happening all over town. Essential workers were able to continue utilizing the childcare facilities run by The Y — something that was a crucial need for the communities of Fargo and Moorhead.

"I think that was one thing that was really unique about our position, as opposed to other fitness facilities in the community, just because we have so many childcare centers, and we do have such a large portion of what we do as childcare," said Marketing Coordinator Cathryn Erbele. "If you want to compare it to (other gyms), they literally have the fitness center and (when) the mandate came out, they shut their doors. And I think for a lot of the things that we do share, we saw a need in the community to continue that child care and so it was like, how can we make this happen in any way possible?"

The phased reopening began May 11 and has continued opening in waves since then, giving members more access to the gym and other offerings.

Reopening smartly

The plan for a phased reopening didn't happen over night, though. Leadership at the YMCA looked to many different sources for guidance, including North Dakota's "Smart Restart" plan set forth by Gov. Doug Burgum, guidelines from the CDC and even what YMCA facilities around the country.

"The guidelines from the State of North Dakota's Smart Restart plan for fitness centers and gyms were super helpful for us when we were thinking about specific guidelines," Erbele said. "Sort of like, yeah if we want to do this, we have to move fitness equipment or if we're going to do this, we have to make sure in Zumba they have their (social distancing) boxes. Sort of just following those guidelines."

Signs around the Schlossman branch of the YMCA promote hand washing and mask wearing from the moment members walk in the door. Temperatures are taken upon entering and screening questions help workers get a feel for how healthy members are.

YMCA manager on duty, Tara, and Member Retention Director Luke Hommerding, along with every staffperson at the YMCA work to keep members safe when they're at the YMCA facilities. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum
YMCA manager on duty, Tara, and Member Retention Director Luke Hommerding, along with every staffperson at the YMCA work to keep members safe when they're at the YMCA facilities. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum

"As we screen and temp people, we have a lot of members that are in the medical field here in the F-M area, and they're like 'Yep, I've already answered and asked these questions this morning.' I know (the questions and temperature checks) kind of annoyed them maybe at times, but it was always good to know that, okay, we are asking the right questions, we have the right practice in place."

As part of their reopening strategy, the YMCA facilities worked to spread out fitness machines and equipment to encourage social distancing. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum
As part of their reopening strategy, the YMCA facilities worked to spread out fitness machines and equipment to encourage social distancing. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum

Guests are encouraged to wear masks and practice social distancing while moving about the building, along with washing and sanitizing hands and equipment frequently. Some parts of the "old ways" aren't currently accessed — think towel service, whirlpools and saunas and drop-in childcare — and an hour of each day is set aside for staff to clean and sanitize the building from top to bottom. In addition to the cleaning hour each day, both the Schlossman and the downtown Fercho branch of the YMCA offers a special "55-pus" hour after the daily mid-day cleaning for older members to get their workout in while things are freshly sanitized.

"I think the big thing we are pushing right now is safety and all of the guidelines," Erbele said. "And keeping members informed about all of the things we are doing to keep them safe."

As part of their reopening strategy, the YMCA facilities worked to spread out fitness machines and equipment to encourage social distancing, and also encourages members to sanitize all equipment before and after each use. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum
As part of their reopening strategy, the YMCA facilities worked to spread out fitness machines and equipment to encourage social distancing, and also encourages members to sanitize all equipment before and after each use. Cathryn Erbele / Special to InForum

Getting back into the swing of a fitness routine is always a battle, but when things like a pandemic throw a wrench into even the most strict workout plans, it can be even more difficult.

"We've just been busting our butt to do the best that we can," said Hommerding. "Everyone is tired. It's been a hard couple of months, but I think we're doing good things, and we're doing the best we can."