There are a lot of stigmas about CrossFit. 

It’s cult-like. It causes injuries. Only elite athletes are welcome. 

These are preconceptions that Jason Berger, owner of Truckee’s Dreamtown CrossFit, addresses and dismantles immediately with aspiring members. 

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Berger is vocal about the overall emotional benefits of group fitness, not just the increased endurance or a better overhead squat. He considers his business a community. 

That’s why, when he had to close down in March, he worried like a parent whose child didn’t come home at night.

But Berger and other fitness center owners in the region were facing a problem much more wide-scale than a minor bout with teenage rebellion. The culprit was — is — a fitness business’s worst-case scenario: a fast-spreading respiratory ailment that thrives from close human contact in indoor environments.

“For sure, I lost some sleep,” Berger said.  

An afternoon class was underway as we sat outside Dreamtown’s rear door, waiting for a Union Pacific train to clunk past. Berger’s NFL-linebacker frame is not quite what the manufacturer of the folding chair he’s in had in mind. Like he does with his gym, he’s making it work.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST: Area fitness center owners, like Dreamtown Crossfit’s Jason Berger, pictured, moved quickly to adapt their businesses once the pandemic forced them to close. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

Berger and his wife, Andrea, built Dreamtown out of bricks of devotion to CrossFit’s results, specifically the ones he achieved himself. He openly admits to not having been in the best physical shape when he first tried the sport, and it’s that growth that firmly pins him to staying fit. 

Berger first heard about the virus in mid-January. Like everyone else around Lake Tahoe and the country, he didn’t equate it with a significant business — or life — risk. It was just sort of looming out there. 

Andrea Berger is a surgical nurse at Tahoe Forest Hospital. As the virus spread, Andrea was adamant that Jason take the rapidly evolving health restrictions seriously. 

A couple of weeks before the official stay-at-home order was enacted by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Dreamtown stopped allowing drop-ins, a CrossFit tradition of encouraging out-of-town athletes to use other gyms when traveling. Class sizes were cut, and socially distanced workouts mandated. 

“She said we need to be responsible and close our doors,” Berger said. “She was on the forefront of what was coming into the hospital; it wasn’t just hearsay for me.”

Thus, before mandated by the state, Dreamtown shut it down.

“It was the right thing to do for our Dreamtown community and Truckee,” Berger said. 

The situation was similar at Kelley McKenzie’s Liv Studio, a Pilates and group fitness facility in Truckee’s Pioneer Center. The gym is an advocate of Les Mills programming, a provider of organized classes that focus on sustained aerobic movements and weights.

“When we first heard of it, like anywhere we weren’t sure how serious it was,” McKenzie wrote in an email. “We thought it would be a couple weeks but as time went on, as a business it was hard. We’re in the business of health and fitness, we did not want to put our members at risk.”

Like Berger’s Dreamtown, McKenzie’s business thrives on group participation, on classes led by certified coaches motivating people in unison to, among other things, better combat the threat of illness. 

Unfortunately, coronavirus thrives in the same environment, a fact that only augments its impact.

While furtive in transmission and fickle in impact, seemingly affecting everyone differently, the novel coronavirus is consistent in its target: the respiratory system. 

Pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome are common in severe cases, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mild cases, too, can create long-lasting breathing problems. 

Existing health concerns, or comorbidities, exacerbate what the virus is capable of doing to a body. This is what leads the ill-informed to believe it’s not the virus that kills you. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website reports that 6 in 10 Americans live with chronic illness, a sobering fact that puts the potential power of this pandemic into bleak perspective. 

The organization also published a coronavirus fact sheet to advise fitness facility owners on safe reopenings and operation during the pandemic.  

“It was devastating to close our doors, even when we thought it would be for a short period of time,” McKenzie said. “Not only for our business but because we knew that if members lose their chance to stay fit they are more at risk of the side effects of the virus.”

Because physical wellness encompasses more than one’s looks on the outside, McKenzie worried about how her members would cope being away from something that’s also critical to emotional balance for many.

“Our members need the gym to relieve stress and set aside time for themselves,” she said.

WEIGHTED RESPONSE: When COVID-19 forced fitness centers to close down this past spring, many owners rented out their equipment to members so they could continue workouts at home. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

McKenzie acted quickly to create online classes, responding like countless other American business owners who had to learn to lead from behind a screen.

“We rented our equipment out [to members of] the gym and found an outlet to stream our classes live … we could connect with our members and they could connect with each other,” she said. “The live classes were so important, not only for them, but for us as well.” She bolstered the live classes with recorded sessions members could take at will. The online comments and pictures sustained the sense of communal fitness so critical to their daily lives. 

“It carried us through a tough time,” she noted. “It kept us pushing forward.” 

Berger, too, knew that the sense of community he works hard to instill through his instruction and universal appeal for wellness would suffer under the requirements needed to quell the virus’s spread. 

With meeting in person not possible, he, too, doled out equipment to members and learned how to use this new thing called Zoom. 

Being based heavily on fostering improved mobility and functional strength, CrossFit doesn’t mandate high-tech equipment. 

It’s a lot of heavy items made of metal, such as kettlebells and barbells, nothing fragile. 

There are also rowing machines, long and incommodious, requiring disassembly to fit into most Subarus. The aptly named Assault Bikes were all checked out, too. So did the jump ropes.

“We didn’t have a piece of equipment left, every single thing was gone,” Berger said. “We didn’t have any rowers, no bikes, not a single dumbbell.”

In short, Berger and McKenzie watched substantial investments — equipment — go out the door to be used and maintained by people all over town, well outside of their reach. 

“The only way I can explain it is, this is family, you’d do the same for your brother, sister, or mom or dad,” Berger said, motioning toward the class, which was then darting by us in waves as part of the workout’s 400-meter run. “What could I do for you guys? Because you’re keeping us alive, I wanted people to get value out of their memberships.”

With the strictest limitations lifted for now, both McKenzie and Berger have resumed in-person classes, albeit under careful considerations.

Masks are mandatory during warm-up and instruction at Dreamtown, and, like at Liv Studio, late summer and early autumn warmth enabled members to be outside.

“Space, large open doors, windows, and air flow as well as the warm weather we have been experiencing has allowed us to stay safe and open,” McKenzie said.

Berger’s landlord was more than agreeable to his idea for installing an outdoor “cage,” essentially a series of connected pull-up bars at varied heights, critical to many of the sport’s movements. 

In addition to open-air workouts, temperature checks and rigorous equipment wipe-downs are typical best practices for the gym owners. 

Both facilities are in the process of moving into new locations to improve air circulation and thus safety. 

Dreamtown isn’t going far, only to the adjacent bay once occupied by Quality Automotive. It has a little more square-footage and most importantly, an overhead door that can be opened to help ventilate the space, and its often-exhausted inhabitants breathe more safely. 

Liv Studio’s new place has a hospital-grade air purification system, according to McKenzie, “…that changes the air constantly.” It also has large doors and a heated outdoor workout space.

In the spirit of new locations, Performance Training Center is nearing completion of its new facility in Pioneer Center, and High Altitude Fitness’s second North Tahoe indoor climbing-based gym is going vertical at Northwoods and Donner Pass Road. Certainly, neither business plan included contingencies for a pandemic.

Still, winter looms, the time when this all started, and things aren’t all that much better. We simply know a little more about handling the situation. 

Even with progress, however, McKenzie thinks many things have changed for the fitness industry in general, but that being in Truckee and Tahoe makes a difference.  

“This has been devastating to the fitness industry,” she said. “We are lucky in Truckee to be able to be open at a small capacity but in larger populated areas, gyms, Pilates, yoga studios are all still closed.”

From interactive mirrors to web-connected stationary bikes, at-home fitness is surging as a result of regulations in large urban areas, McKenzie points out. 

“Large box gyms are filing for bankruptcy, boutique studios are closing, and trainers are moving on and out of the industry … the virtual component on the other hand is thriving with Peloton and Apple Fitness.” When asked what’s changed since having been allowed to reopen, Berger replied, “nothing.”

In a recent class, he started instruction with a rare, somewhat somber prologue, juxtaposing coronavirus conditions with going back to an abusive relationship, reminding members that they shouldn’t expect to be treated differently by the virus, that being together in class doesn’t mean the risk has subsided.

“Think of others, think about what you would want someone else to do if they might have been exposed,” he said. “It’s still out there.” McKenzie and Berger may be secretly wishing for a mild winter, despite a large number of their members relying on their classes for winter sports fitness, as a dry season could help them both keep the doors open. 

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