A gym owner's plight in the midst of coronavirus: 'How we return to real life is the next challenge'

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

VENICE, Calif. — Lincoln Boulevard stomps through town like it’s mad it’s not one of those pretty streets with the boutiques and valet parking and nice lighting. The left-hand turn lanes tend to run long and the shops lean to the essential types. The crosswalks are viewed as thoughtful enough but hardly worth going out of one’s way for.

It’s loud and congested and often smells weird and is probably still the best way to get to the airport this time of day, or maybe not, it’s hard to say really.

Beautiful in that one-eyed-mutt-with-half-a-tail way, it is full of life and a little hungry, which is why the empty cement yard at the corner of Lincoln and Commonwealth Avenue, next to the auto repair shop, across the street from the tire shop, seems especially relevant. This is the home of Deuce Gym, a small, gray cinder block building that used to be, of course, an auto repair shop. The unofficial motto: “We don’t fix cars.”

Deuce has been closed since March 15, the day before the county would have shut it down anyway, its garage door rolled down and its front gate padlocked. The day before, and just about every day for the previous seven years, the yard had been full of all sorts, from the guy who puked during his assessment walk-through to the woman priming for a national competition.

This is how one survives Los Angeles. Or any place like Los Angeles. The sprawl runs to the horizon, assuming there is a horizon that day, and so does the inclination to feel overrun, swamped, anonymous, forgotten. All alone in one of the biggest crowds on earth.

Deuce Gym in Venice, California, would normally be packed with 'motivated people' working out, but now is empty do to the coronavirus pandemic. (Yahoo Sports)

The guy who lives next to Deuce makes hats. He comes to the gym in the mid-morning. Next door to him is a chef. She comes to the gym at dawn. Across the street from her, the firefighter likes 9 o’clock. A few houses down the block, a man sips an espresso on his porch one late afternoon. His name is Logan Gelbrich. He owns the gym. More, he created the gym. He and others like him made it into a place that people become a part of, that over time becomes a part of them. So along a crowded boulevard, in a massive city, under a carbon monoxide haze, there is a concrete slab, cracked plenty, fenced by prison-vibe iron, that merely asks people for the best they have that day and promises the same in return. If you have to puke, go ahead.

That is what a gym, temporarily closed by the coronavirus, can be. Like a closed church or bar or library or restaurant or ballpark or beach.

“We’re just trying to make you faster, stronger and harder to kill,” a smiling coach had said one morning.

“Far as I can tell,” came a wheezy response, “the only thing trying to kill me is you.”

Then the gym had to be closed.

Gelbrich, 34, has so far paid his employees — 10 full-timers and four part-timers over three facilities — their full salaries. He applied for and received economic injury disaster assistance — $4,000 of the $10,000 the government had talked about. He applied for more through the Paycheck Protection Program and is waiting for an answer. He devised a plan to keep his members — 220 at the Venice location, another 175 across locations in Hollywood and Hermosa Beach — connected and active and, in turn, paying their monthly dues.

“Keep going,” he’d said, like a mother sending a child into the world.

The rest, as an entrepreneur, as a small-business owner, as the guy who runs the place down the block, remains at the whim of the virus, at the direction of health and government officials, on the pace of scientists and the cooperation of the public, a segment of which is growing weary of the complications of it all. Some estimates have a quarter of the nation’s 30 million small businesses at risk of never reopening. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday revealed a plan to reopen the state gradually, over four phases. Gyms like Gelbrich’s come in the third stage, which, Newsom said, could be months away.

Even before Newsom outlined his plan, Gelbrich said, he would have to consider factors beyond an official all clear.

“I would need to feel good about the lay of the land at that time,” he said. “My personal opinion is there isn’t really a time where everyone is safe ever. I look at the whole thing as a matter of social responsibility. Meaning, I don’t know that I ever felt responsible in the beginning for individual lives inside the community as much as that all the lives that can be protected by collaborative participation.

“In my opinion, you are not responsible for only walking into a grocery store where no one can ever get sick.”

One day again, perhaps, Gelbrich and millions like him will be told it is safe again. He will be free to unlock the gate, roll up the garage door and fill a whiteboard with ink over the course of that day. There will be music. There will be laughter. Men and women will linger at the picnic table, because the hard work exists off the cement slab, on the other side of the gate. He’s not sure he trusts the people who will deliver that news, that he can run his business again. He’s also not sure it matters if he does.

This is what Deuce Gym in Venice, California, looks like on a normal day. (Courtesy of Deuce Gym)

“I’ll say this,” he said, “I don’t trust that the decision can be made without baggage.

“I don’t really trust that the highest motivator is to do the right thing. I also don’t know how hung up I am on that. What am I going to do about that? Part of the reason I can say that is, what’s great about the small-business sector is it is rigorously connected to real skin in the game. There are consequences for failures and successes.”

Large corporations, he said, win when they win. They also, often enough, win when they lose. 

“That’s not a game I get to play,” he said.

Lincoln Boulevard will fill again and storm again through Venice, past the doors locked for months, past the sidewalks empty for months, past the concrete slab that held the folks getting faster, stronger and harder to kill. What it all looks like then, exactly, and what it means for Logan Gelbrich and the community within the community he helped create, is out at the end of that road. He is optimistic. The real motto in his gym is “Hold the Standard.” That’s for the moms and dads who come in, for the sons and daughters, for the hat maker and the chef and the firefighter, for himself.

“When we go back to reality,” he said, “it probably won’t be as black-and-white as saying, ‘Game on.’ It’ll be more nuanced than that. How we return to real life is the next challenge.”

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