Even as gyms partially reopen, fitness companies face an uphill climb


Face-down in a prison yard, with bullets zipping over his head and a riot broiling all around him, Don Dickerson committed to start living a clean life that would make a positive impact on the community.

He’s made good on that promise, helping Fitness SF expand to eight gyms that promote physical and mental health in the Bay Area and serving on a series of nonprofit boards that provide amity in a variety of sectors.

But after 16-plus years as the director of operations and then vice president of Fitness SF, Dickerson can’t help but feel as though he’s been forced back to lying in the dirt as chaos surrounds him.

“This is the first time since prison that I’ve thought I might lose everything I’ve worked for,” Dickerson said. “We’re at an inflection point.”

The fitness industry has been decimated during the coronavirus pandemic, especially in San Francisco, where gyms and studios are finally scheduled to open Monday with limited capacity for the first time since the mid-March shelter-in-place order.

During the six months of closure, the San Francisco Independent Fitness Studio Coalition estimates that its nearly 100 businesses have lost close to $40 million. Fitness SF, which has six San Francisco gyms and one each in Corte Madera and Oakland, has lost about $20 million, according to Dickerson.

“This city is everything we love, and it’s really falling apart this year,” Dickerson said. “After half a year, you’re really looking at an extinction-level event.”

For Dickerson, it’s not just about the fitness industry. It’s about every small business that creates the vibrant heartbeat of the city, including hair and nail salons and massage, tattoo and piercing parlors, which will also finally be allowed to open Monday.

It’s also not just about money for Dickerson, who was a self-proclaimed “homeless meth addict” in San Francisco and “ran around committing crimes to support my habit” for a handful of years before being arrested in 1999.

Dickerson hid his sexual orientation to protect himself as he was shuttled between San Quentin, Lompoc and Susanville prisons for five years. During a 90-day stay in a federal halfway house in 2004, he applied for up to 10 jobs per day without a single interview.

Fitness SF gave him a chance, and he made the most of it — helping the company expand its brand and philanthropic impact. Fitness SF uses its SoMa location to train people from the Harbor Light Center two hours per day, offers a gym to a Hunters Point school that otherwise wouldn’t have access, and works closely with LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Dickerson serves on the board of the Transbay CAC, Trainers Coalition and Muttville, including adopting 11 senior dogs with his partner.

“I went from having a wasted life to bringing something to society, and everything I’ve worked for is at risk right now,” he said. “I believe in our elected officials, but I just wish they would broaden their view and understand what they are doing to people. People are dying because they’ve lost their ability to support their families and lost their homes. It’s baffling to us that they see this in such a linear way.”

After pausing reopening plans because of coronavirus surge in June, San Francisco offered no guidance to the fitness industry until Sept. 1, when Mayor London Breed announced that gyms could operate outdoors in a week.

On Wednesday, Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón closed city-operated gyms he previously didn’t know were open at police stations and other governmental locations. An hour after The Chronicle obtained the letter from Aragon on Thursday, San Francisco announced plans to open gyms Monday.

For many gyms, opening at 10% capacity might be too little, too late.

Fitness SF has navigated record-setting poor air quality and unique logistical nightmares to open outdoor training at its San Francisco locations, including rooftop-style setups, untenable sidewalks and a circus-like tent. But Dickerson said opening at 10% capacity would cost as much as the business could generate.

After saying for months that he didn’t have data to support San Francisco’s closure of gyms, Aragón wrote in his Wednesday letter to city department heads: “Indoor gyms and fitness centers greatly increase the risk of virus transmission, including from asymptomatic people, due to the relatively limited air circulation, the increase in particle exhalation due to exertion, and the increased risk of people touching shared equipment.”

He did not address the facts that health experts say body mass indexes, diabetes and heart disease — all contributing factors in coronavirus deaths — are at an all-time high and could be lessened by eating right, sleeping well and exercising.

“We believe that we’re a tool to be used against the coronavirus. Instead, the Department of Public Health believes it’s smarter for everybody to sit at home and become unhealthier,” said Dickerson, who invested in thermal cameras to check clients’ temperatures, enhanced HVAC filters and months’ worth of personal protective equipment. “We want to operate safely. We want to do our part in this fight. But we need to be given a path forward.

“If DPH won’t speak to us, and Dr. Aragón won’t base his decisions on data, what are we going to do?”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

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