Niles, Dowagiac gym owner plans to reopen despite COVID-19 mandates

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., business was booming for Dowagiac resident Gary Marshall.

As the owner of FitStop24 locations in Niles and Dowagiac, his gyms were packed, and his membership was nearly 1,000 and growing.

“We were getting busier every month,” he said. “I think that is down to our customer service. We truly want to help people and help them reach their goals.”

However, March brought business to a screeching halt. The outbreak of COVID-19 came to Michigan, and Marshall was forced to close his doors due to executive orders aimed at curbing the virus’ spread. Soon, customers began calling to cancel their memberships, bills started mounting, and rent was due.

Now, after two months of being closed, Marshall said “his back is against the wall” and it is time to get back to the gym.

In a Facebook and Instagram video Saturday, Marshall announced that he was planning to reopen both of his FitStop24 locations by early next week, despite statewide orders that gyms remain closed. He said the gyms would take precautions to keep visitors and employees safe from the spread of COVID-19.

“If the big box stores can do it, we can,” Marshall said Sunday morning. “If we can rub elbows in Lowes and Walmart, what is the difference between our small businesses when we can safely operate and maintain distance? We’ve had enough time to implement ways to keep our customers safe.”

Marshall opened his first location of Michiana-based franchise FitStop24 in October 2019 at 410 N. 2nd St., Niles. He followed in January by transforming 201 S. Front St. in Dowagiac into a second FitStop24. He calls the two fitness facilities the product of both his life’s work and his passion for health.

Now, he said the current health crisis is threatening that passion, as neither government aids or loans have been enough to sustain the business during the extended closure. Though he said the decision to reopen was a difficult one he spent many sleepless nights going over, he feels it is the best option for the health of his business and the community’s health.

“I can’t just sit back and watch it all fade away,” he said. “If we just sit and wait for this to go away, we will never come back. [COVID-19] is not going away anytime soon.”

Though Marshall plans on reopening his doors, he said things would not be returning to how they were before COVID-19. Despite the 24 in its name, the gym will not be open 24/7. Instead, Marshall plans to open for limited hours, likely 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., to allow him and his crew to thoroughly clean and sanitize the gym. Several hand sanitizer stations will be installed near the equipment for gym-goers to use, while employees will be cleaning every hour on the hour. Marshall plans to implement timeslots or appointments that people can sign up for to help limit the number of customers in the gym at any time. He said he is playing it by ear when and how group fitness classes might be able to take place safely.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable and safe coming in,” he said. “Customer safety is our number one concern, and the quicker we can get back open, the quicker we can put safety measures in place and adapt them to the current situation.”

Marshall is prepared to receive backlash from his decision to reopen, saying that he would rather risk negative feedback and fines than lose his business.

“I think I’m doing the right thing,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I need to fight for what I believe in. … I have a wife and two beautiful children at home that I need to provide for.”