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People work out at the YMCA on Tuesday. While the coronavirus pandemic caused steep declines in gym memberships, area fitness centers are seeing people return to their facilities.

When COVID-19 first descended on the country in March 2020, health clubs represented a no-brainer when the time came to shut down businesses. All that huffing and puffing spewed countless virus droplets into the air.

The YMCA on Charleston’s Hillcrest Drive shut down for a while in 2020, then opened only its fitness area for a time. Supervisors closed locker rooms. Anyone working out had to be masked. Locker rooms eventually reopened, but the face mask requirement remained in place.

As 2021 wore on and vaccines became available, most health clubs stayed open, but membership had taken a severe hit.

As of November 2020, the YMCA’s rolls had dropped to 4,677 members, about half of pre-COVID levels. The rebound was on the way, though — November 2021 saw the numbers climb back up to 5,615, a 20% increase.

“The last 12 months, we’ve had solid member growth,” YMCA President Sarah Bolyard said. “It’s been a breath of fresh air. There are signs that things are getting back to normal.”

Bolyard offered her comments with a caveat — no one knows what new strains or variants are on the way.

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People work out at the Charleston YMCA on Tuesday. The YMCA has seen an increase in memberships over the last year from November 2020, when memberships fell to about half of what they had been pre-pandemic.

She also points to another positive development. Not all the membership increase can be attributed to old members returning. Some are new, having lost ties to their old gyms during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Evening crowds at the Y are noticeably larger, and early morning goers report brisk activity. Classes are well attended, the facility’s swimming pool is full of lap enthusiasts, and tennis players are again pounding the ball.

There are no recreational leagues for children or adults going on now, but a more stable environment might see their return.

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Will Santen, 19, is a student at Auburn University, in Alabama. His vaccination status gives him peace of mind.

“I’ve got my vaccination and booster,” Santen said. “I feel safe, and I feel like I’m keeping others safe by being vaccinated.”

At Nautilus in Kanawha City, Ed Stike, 60, never quit working out. He did notice that the older, early afternoon crowd petered out for a spell.

“But among the younger and those who work out in the evening, I never noticed a big dropoff,” Stike said.

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Colton McWain of Alum Creek lifts weights at the YMCA Tuesday.

Two attempts to reach Nautilus owner Bob White were unsuccessful.

Anytime Fitness, at the Kanawha Mall, is owned by a group of investors, Bandon Fitness, but only since earlier this year. Bandon oversees gyms in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. District manager Ashley Althouse said the Charleston location is one of the chain’s largest among 26 locations, although she couldn’t supply membership figures.

“Each month, we’ve set a goal of about 50 new members,” Althouse said. “We’ve met it every time. We’re really building our member base back up now.”

She said Charleston represents one of the larger markets in the chain, which usually operates in smaller communities.

Althouse said conversations with other gym owners and companies indicate the same positive trends in membership.

Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone@hdmediallc.com.

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