Gym owner: ‘Around the time we got shut down, both of my parents came down with COVID’

Jen and Marcus Wilson are opening True Grit Society
Jen and Marcus Wilson

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jen Wilson, co-owner, True Grit Society gym

Right around the time we got shut down, both of my parents came down with COVID. They live in Minot, North Dakota, and it’s really a crazy thing because it hadn’t reached that rate of infection where I had first-person knowledge. At first it was a stigma: “Oh, you have COVID, what did you do?” And now it’s turning into seven degrees of separation. 

We never knew anyone who had it and got very ill. My mother, Apryl, has been in the hospital for four weeks. She’s fighting for her life. She may die. So for us it’s a very real situation now. 

My father is a veteran and he drives all over the state to rural towns helping other veterans get benefits from the government. My mother volunteers delivering Meals on Wheels to older folks. They’re in their 70s, in the age group that needs to be very careful and, according to them, they have been masking it up.  

My mother has asthma and very quickly after she got it she developed COVID pneumonia. She now has MRSA [an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection].  She’s on a ventilator. She’s been sedated in a coma. I’ve heard stories of people being in the hospital for months who get better, so I just keep hoping.

I think the actual COVID disease is similar to the social aspect of COVID. From moment to moment, I’ll get the call that they’re not pushing as much oxygen and she can maybe breathe a little on her own. Then the very next hour, I get a call that she’s critical — that her oxygen levels are very low, like 70%. It’s so up and down, similar to the social aspect. People right now mentally are all over the place. People are changing what they’re doing and how they’re living in the world from minute to minute. It mirrors the actual virus to me.

People are like, “I’m so sorry you had to shut the gym down,” but thinking that somebody at the gym might catch something like this and have to go through it with their family — man, it would kill us if something happened to a member or someone we cared about. 

It’s hard to make these decisions. We have a 5-year-old who is greatly affected by not having any friends to play with anymore. We have to weigh what’s best for her and her mental health and make a calculated decision. There’s no shame in the decision of what’s risky and what’s not and how people define that, but it’s something that everybody deals with and it’s part of the fatigue. 

There are clear-cut risks to being in a gym without a mask on. I’m an imaginative person, and I definitely see an enormous puke-green coronavirus barreling toward my face, and I think about that and wonder if I’m doing the right thing at this moment. 

We’ve seen reports on infection rates in gyms and they’re very low — especially boutique gyms like ours. We are well below the standards of what we can have in a class and adhere to 10 feet of social distance in most cases, masks in/masks out and lots of air movement. And we did stay virus free for six months. 

So it was confusing what the state was basing these guidelines on. You still can go to church? And we have a membership at the Arboretum, and the Arboretum was closed, which is also very weird because it’s all outside and everyone is distanced there. So it’s a little muddled. Are there numbers that show why gyms should close? Without specific reasoning for why gyms were closed but not other things, it’s hard to try to bring comfort to our customers and to our instructors, who are putting themselves in harm’s way. 

It starts to feel like it’s very political. We think Gov. Walz has done a great job — he’s in a very difficult spot — but let’s see the numbers behind it. Marcus is very black and white: “We’re OK with shutting down, but give us the why.” 

The human part of this is that it is the right thing to do. Every time we walk in the gym there is risk involved. We quarantine otherwise, but then we walk into our business because we have to run it. We want everyone to stay safe. You add the whole situation with my family, my mother dying of COVID, and it’s definitely the right decision, but from a livelihood/business perspective, it’s a punch in the gut for sure. 

The silver lining of being shut down a second time is that you do it a little better than the first time. The minute we got shut down — we kind of knew it was coming — we immediately spoke to all of our instructors and asked who would be willing to get on the schedule and teach a daily class. We still don’t want to charge people for fitness online — it’s just not something we want to do — so we froze memberships. But we wanted to make it so people could count on going to a workout at a certain time every morning or watch it throughout the day.

The downside is we’re incurring a cost while we’re closed. We’re still paying instructors. We’ve been working through rent with our landlords, and they have been very understanding, but owing back rent puts a lot of stress on you. It’s like we keep falling further and further and further behind. You talk to a friend and they’re like, “Let’s meet up for coffee after the vaccine,” but it’s not that easy. There’s going to be so much time for everyone to get the vaccine and so many other variables. How long can we hang on? That is the question a lot of people are asking themselves. 

Our landlord has told us that we are their best bet. But it feels uncomfortable to owe. Marcus and I have talked about calling our legislators to see if there’s something that can be done in terms of business relief. Residential is the first priority — to stop people from becoming homeless — but is there something that can be passed to help businesses pay their rent? 

What does it cost? It’s costing people a lot of things that don’t actually have a monetary value. It’s difficult to hold our business up, hold our personal lives up and hold our health up all at the same time. Right now our professional lives are falling down because it’s more important to take care of people’s lives. 

The other thing is: Once we open back up, are we just going to let anyone back in? The first time was super confusing — we were in phase one and then all of a sudden we were in phase three. This time we’ve learned that just because the state says go ahead and open again, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will. We’re going to do what’s best for us. We’ve had some members and instructors say they don’t feel safe coming back before Christmas. People might take a risk that they otherwise wouldn’t because it’s sad to be alone on Christmas or New Year’s Eve. So we think it might be best to wait until after the holidays to reopen.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.