LGBTQ business owners struggle with whether to reopen

LGBTQ-owned businesses allowed by Gov. Brian Kemp to reopen on Friday are struggling with the decision, caught between trying to salvage revenue and keep employees and customers safe. 

Kemp eased coronavirus restrictions on several non-essential businesses, a move that allowed gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians and massage therapists to open on Friday if they followed a list of safety precautions. 

That meant LGBTQ-owned businesses on Kemp’s list faced a tough choice. And for some that announced they would reopen, it meant backlash from employees and customers that prompted them to quickly walk back those plans and remain closed. 

“I’ve got a lot of members that are training in the back parking lot,” said Rad Slough, owner of Urban Body Fitness. “They want to come into the gym.”

Slough announced on Monday that Urban Body would reopen on Saturday with a long list of safety protocols in place. But within two days, his staff said they weren’t comfortable coming back to work. So Slough had to pull back on opening his facility, which has been shuttered since March 19.

“We are the cleanest gym in town, and we are going to stay that way. We spend a lot of money disinfecting already,” Slough said.

When the gym does reopen – likely sometime next week with limited staff and hours – clients will be required to wash their hands when they enter, have their temperature checked at the front desk, sign a waiver and be asked to disinfect their equipment before and after using it. Capacity will be limited to 30 people.

Equilibrium Fitness owner Bryan Castano reopened his facility on Friday morning. He urged customers to “safely and responsibly” work out.

The gym is limiting workouts to 45 minutes and asking clients to wear face masks, follow physical distancing guidelines and wipe equipment after using it. 

“Above all, if you feel sick (even allergies) or are experiencing a fever of more than 99.5 degrees, please do not come in,” the gym said in a Facebook post on Friday announcing its re-opening.

'We are waiting'

Gravity Fitness is targeting May 1 to reopen, though that could change, according to co-owner Aaron Pols. 

“That is the earliest we would consider opening and definitely have reservations. We are waiting to get updated information as it becomes available from the health experts,” said Pols (second photo center, with co-owners David Goldstein and Ken Penvose).

When Gravity reopens, it will use a reservation system to limit the number of people inside the gym and enforce physical distancing by only allowing every other piece of equipment to be used.

“The primary focus is the safety and well-being of the entire Gravity family. We will not be opening until we feel like we can adequately enact all of the above guidelines and feel like it is a safe place to conduct business,” Pols said.

Earlier this week, Flex Spas said it would open its gym and outdoor areas for sunbathing – but not the entire facility – on Friday. But by Wednesday, CEO Chris Meche said feedback from concerned citizens convinced him to change course and remain closed. 

“Flex Spas has agreed with other local businesses across the city and state to remain closed until the local and federal governments can provide a safe and secure plan for reopening the country without hurting people,” Meche said in statement posted to Twitter.

In the meantime, Meche said, the gay social club is giving the facility a facelift and fresh look to prepare for its eventual reopening, just like Ten Atlanta promised to do during its downtime.

OUT Georgia Business Alliance, a statewide LGBTQ chamber of commerce, said it wants a “meaningful and timely economy recovery,” but called Kemp’s easing of coronavirus restrictions “premature.”

“The health and safety of Georgians should remain our top priority, and the available data shows, along with input from public health officials, that Georgia is not yet safe to reopen in the manner Gov. Kemp outlined,” OUT Georgia said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“OUT Georgia is concerned Gov. Kemp’s actions will put all Georgian’s lives at risk unnecessarily, including those in the LGBTQ community, and our most vulnerable will be forced back to work before it is safe,” the organization added.

'It's just too soon'

Randy Addison, the owner of Helmet Hairworx, could have thrown open the doors of his hair salons on Friday. But after talking with staff members, he said he won’t lead the charge of reopening businesses.

“Though it is crushing to stay closed, I cannot in good conscience open our salons and put them at risk until I have more assurances that testing, treatment, and case numbers are under some semblance of control,” Addison wrote on Facebook on Monday.

Funtime Bowl owner Ellen Howard agreed. She closed her two bowling alleys on March 17. Although she could reopen on Friday, Howard told Project Q on Thursday that it's way too soon.

“We are not going to open,” Howard said. “I just think he jumped the gun. It’s just too soon. We have to see the numbers go the other way before we do that.”

Read more coverage of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting LGBTQ Atlanta.

Photos by Russ Bowen-Youngblood