Roy Cooper reopens gyms, bowling alleys, leaves bars, nightclubs, other businesses shuttered

By Julie Havlak

Raleigh, NC – Gov. Roy Cooper will move North Carolina into Phase 2.5 on Friday, Sept. 4, when gyms and bowling alleys will be able to operate at 30% capacity. 

But Cooper’s reopening plan will bring little relief to gyms and bowling alleys, owners say. For many, it’s too little, too late. 

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

Bars, movie theaters, and amusement parks will remain closed. Gyms and bowling alleys can operate at 30% capacity. Restaurants, salons, aquariums, barbershops, and tattoo parlors can operate at 50% capacity. Legal mass gatherings increased to 25 people indoors and 50 outdoors. Restaurants and breweries can’t sell alcohol after 11 p.m. Face coverings are required in public spaces where people can’t social distance. Children over the age five must wear masks. 

Cigar bars and hookah lounges are closed, under Cooper’s latest order.

Cooper pushed reopening up from its original expiration date of Friday, Sept. 11. 

On Monday, two popular gyms announced their plans to reopen in defiance of Cooper’s orders. Planet Fitness planned to restart its gyms this week, as did Crunch Fitness, reported the News & Observer

Multiple reporters asked Cooper what data changed for him to push up his reopening plan. North Carolina had 23,540 confirmed active cases, 946 hospitalizations, and 2,702 deaths on Tuesday

“The numbers are stable, and some of them are declining,” Cooper said in a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 1. “That’s positive. We also want to do things to spur our economy, encourage people to exercise. This is a dimmer switch, a careful step that we’re making.”

Cooper’s reopening plan won’t help gyms and bowling alleys survive the financial damage of the shutdowns, owners say. The 30% capacity restrictions are too strict for many to make ends meet. 

In Concord, Steve Pinkerton watched as Vitality Fitness’s revenues plummeted 80% in April, and flatlined in May. He doesn’t expect to recover for months. Some of his tenants never will. He’s already lost a dance studio and another small business. Almost a third of his monthly lease revenue is gone, but his mortgage remains.

“The long-term shutdowns have crushed these gyms,” Pinkerton told Carolina Journal. “You’re taking away this healthy outlet from people. But don’t worry, ABC stores will still be open.”

Pinkerton says he’s angry that North Carolina was among the last states to reopen its gyms. 

In late August, North Carolina was one of seven states that still shuttered gyms. But Arizona reopened gyms on Aug. 27, and New Jersey freed gyms to operate at 25% capacity on Tuesday, Sept. 1. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to make an announcement this week to reopen gyms after Labor Day, according to the Detroit Free Press. New York, too, will reopen gyms in some capacity this month. 

Pinkerton worries he’s lost some customers for good. 

Some surveys already confirm his fear. Roughly 63% of gym members have canceled or are considering canceling their memberships. That puts North Carolina in the top five states with the lowest percentage of people planning to return to their gyms, according to an August survey by RunRepeat, which questioned 5,055 gym members worldwide.

“He’ll reopen, but the damage is done,” Pinkerton said. “It will take people months before they’re comfortable coming back to a gym. People have this misconception that you can switch, open, and everything will be good. It’s not.”

Bowling alley owners are similarly frustrated. 

Cooper’s reopening plan isn’t feasible, said David Carmichael, who owns Strike & Barrel bowling alley in Wake Forest. Reopening to less than 50% of capacity will actually cost his business money. 

Carmichael launched his bowling alley fewer than five months before the pandemic hit. He sunk another $200,000 to add a restaurant and 75 jobs to the alley. That project is now frozen, and its lenders are increasingly wary. 

All his employees are gone now, on leave. The bowling alley has lost $500,000 and expects to lose more. 

Carmichael says he has gone numb to reopening. Bowling alleys won the right to reopen in court, but a ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court undid their victory. Their ability to reopen lasted less than a week. 

“We’ve had the rug pulled out from under us a few times, and that cost it money,” Carmichael told CJ. “We’d get ready, and stay shut down. That yo-yo of reopening costs money. It’s been pretty devastating, and doubly bad for us.”

Cooper will not reopen bars. After 167 days of lockdowns, bars owners say their businesses won’t survive. 

“We know that some businesses are still closed and people are hurting,” Cooper said.

“The more we do to slow the spread of this virus, the more we can speed this dimmer switch. … I want everybody to work hard so these businesses can be open.”

Cohen said the trends were stable but still too high. She wants to see the percent of positive tests decline to 5% or less. 

The damage to the economy could last two to three years. For businesses targeted with restrictions for health risks, up to 40% of businesses won’t survive, says Michael Walden, N.C. State University economist and member of the governor’s N.C. Economic Recovery Group. 

“My guess is that a lot of gyms will reopen if they’ve been able to keep afloat over the last six months,” Walden told CJ. “But they may not be able to survive, because the revenue just isn’t there. And a lot of people may not go back.”

The economy won’t be the same as before the coronavirus, says Walden. He predicts that one in 10 businesses won’t make it through the economic downturn. Workers will also face faster automation. 

“The virus is ruling the economy,” Walden said. “We’ve had to sacrifice the economy with shutdowns in order to save people. We’re still looking at that tradeoff. We’re not going to get the economy and health back on the same track until we get a vaccine.”