The University of Arizona Student Recreation Center is a popular spot for students to unwind after a long day of online classes. In the late afternoon, masked students often cluster at the entryway, sometimes waiting up to 30 minutes for the gym to dip below maximum capacity so that they can begin their workout.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, gym capacity limits and mandatory masks are just a few of the major changes set in place by Campus Recreation. According to Associate Director of Facilities at Campus Recreation Renee Lima, the Rec Center adapted to adhere to guidelines from the University of Arizona, Pima County and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staff members completely transformed the layout of the gym in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“Right now, we only have the weight room area open,” Lima said. “We have spread equipment out throughout the hallways. Upstairs, we have our track open and we have racquetball courts open, but not for competitive sports.”
Exercise is associated with a higher respiration rate and level of exertion than day-to-day activities, resulting in more potentially virus-containing droplets entering the air.
Because of this, Lima explained that the Rec Center maintains an eight-foot social distancing requirement in comparison to the standard six-foot requirement used elsewhere on campus. Contact sports and group workouts that do not maintain this distance between students are not permitted.
Indoor racquet ball and outdoor volleyball courts were converted into additional spaces students can use for socially-distanced workouts.
“People are more comfortable working out outside because the airflow is more natural," Lima said. "To be honest, it’s more safe."
Facility services student coordinator and junior operating operations management and management information systems major Matthew Chaudhary noted that the gym also introduced new, more intensive cleaning protocols
“We had to increase our cleaning by about four to six times,” Chaudhary said.
According to Chaudhary, enforcing these new policies, particularly mask-wearing and social-distancing, proved challenging and was met with resistance from student gym-goers.
“Sometimes now we're getting into these conflicts with patrons where we're saying, ‘Well, we really would prefer if you were to follow these policies so that we can maintain this facility staying open, and we can do our best to fight the spread of the virus.’ And they're just not on board with that because to them, it doesn't come across as ‘this is a policy for my safety,’ it comes across as ‘you're doing this to hinder my freedoms,’” Chaudhary said.
Chaudhary further explained that student adherence to mask policy has improved greatly since the beginning of the fall 2020 semester.
“At the start of the semester that was just beyond difficult to enforce, and now, when I walk into the facility, I maybe have to tell one or two people about it,” Chaudhary said. “So I'm pretty happy with that, considering it was closer to 50 to 100 really at the start.”
Despite this improvement, Chaudhary reiterated the importance of all gym-goers adhering to the strict mask wearing policy. When a patron is seen without a mask, or not wearing the mask over the nose and mouth, staff members give them a reminder.
After two reminders of mask noncompliance, students are asked to leave the facility, and the UA Police Department and the Dean of Students may get involved in the case of a confrontation.
“It comes down to one of those things where if it's not everyone doing it, the effectiveness goes down significantly,” Chaudhary said. “It's unfortunately not if 95% of people are doing it, it's 95% effective. That 5% tends to bring it down a lot more because that's just the nature of how viruses spread.”
According to Lima, in order to ensure increased enforcement of social distancing and mask wearing, the capacity of the weight room was decreased from 150 at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester to 130 where it is currently set. This change has, in turn, led to crowds and lines accumulating outside the gym at certain times of the day.
“The lines are out the door sometimes — it's really bad,” Chaudhary said “So, to combat that, what we've done is, we have tried to adjust our hours at the North Rec facility a little bit to try to open up that capacity and take away from the main Rec and divert some people over to North Rec. And then additionally, we had another facility manager come on staff … to assist with [COVID-19] related policies.”
Chaudhary stated that increased enforcement and cleaning responsibility as well as decreased staff size due to the required two-week quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test have placed a strain on his staff.
However, Chaudhary expressed optimism, citing the new facility manager and the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to student employees.
“I think it's been really cool to see how well, my employees and everybody at the Rec Center has bonded together and responded to this,” Chaudhary said. “I think we wouldn't be anywhere we are today without them.”
Both Chaudhary and Lima stated that they believe the Rec Center provides a safe exercise experience to students, and can be a great outlet to improve both mental and physical health.
“If you go into the Rec Center, and you do your part wiping down the equipment before and after, as well. You’ll have no trouble at all with using the facility safely,” Chaudhary said.
However, Lima noted that for students wishing to avoid the crowd, the Rec Center is typically less crowded with many amenities available in the mornings from when it opens at 6 a.m. to around 11 a.m.
Crowds tend to gather in the afternoon and evenings when students get out of class or work.
“Monday through Wednesday are our higher traffic days, and our highest times throughout the week is the afternoons,” Lima said, “So, really at noon, we’ll start hitting capacity. At about 4 p.m. is when the line gets probably about 30 minutes to get into the weight room.”
Lima also suggested students check the live count on the Campus Recreation website before heading to the gym so that they know in advance if certain spaces are at capacity.
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