Moving your campus recreation center operations from a 250,000-square-foot building to a 4,000-square-foot outdoor tent isn't on any campus recreation director's wish list. But that's exactly what officials at the University of Oregon did earlier this year in the wake of a spike in coronavirus cases across the state.
They converted an outdoor space adjacent to the Student Recreation Center — a space known as "The Playground" and used for drop-in fitness programming during pre-pandemic times — into a makeshift strength and cardio training area complete with free weights, benches, non-electric stationary bikes and more. Half of the space is asphalt, while the other half is covered with synthetic turf installed several years ago. In addition to fitness activities, the space also hosted intramural cornhole and Spikeball competitions.
"After the uptick in cases, we were no longer able to keep the rec center open, so we had to decide what to do," says Brent Harrison, associate director for programs in Oregon's Department of Physical Education and Recreation. "We knew that activities in open-air spaces could continue to happen. So why not look at a tent, which allows for air flow and falls under the guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority?"
"It was a temporary setup, very similar to what people would use during a wedding or other special event," adds Cody Weaver, associate director of facilities for the department. "We opted for a robust fabric option that was more resistant to wind and precipitation, and we got creative with our water-diversion tactics. We have some really talented maintenance staff, and they fabricated a gutter system for the tent out of some larger diameter PVC and flexible hosing. So they were actually able to mitigate a fair amount of water runoff."
Other University of Oregon departments assisted the campus rec team with identifying the tent company and navigating the permit process. Once The Playground was ready, student employees hauled the equipment out of the recreation center before it opened daily at 8 a.m. and back in after it closed at 6 p.m. Participants could sign up for 45-minute sessions, during which social distancing and the wearing of face masks were strictly enforced and additional cleaning protocols were implemented.
Faced with a similar situation at California State University, Chico, Wildcat Recreation Center director Curtis Sicheneder received permission to relocate its fitness programming to the second level of a three-story parking garage across the street from the facility. Given that most classes are held virtually, that structure was underutilized anyway.
The 130,000-square-foot space — dubbed "WREC 2.0" — is equipped with squat racks, free weights and non-electric cardio machines, and a large 120-by-40-foot turf area allows for individual use and socially distanced group exercise programming. Additionally, all equipment is spaced far enough away from the open sides of the garage to be protected from the elements.
The space is operated by the WREC's full-time staff from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week, or 40 hours per week compared to the 111 hours per week the WREC was open before the pandemic. Masks are required at all times, and a third-party security firm patrols the site after hours.
"There's no original idea in campus recreation, so we followed the lead of our sister campus — CSU, Sacramento — which also moved its equipment outside," Sicheneder says. "They used a fitness equipment installer, and we hired the same company. With about 12 employees, they were able to do in eight hours what I'm sure would have taken us many days. We've scheduled with them to bring the equipment back inside after finals in May."
'Better than not opening at all'
Despite the unconventional approaches taken by Oregon and Chico State, students didn't seem to mind.
"They knew we were trying to accommodate as many people as we could in a safe environment," says Al Diaz, assistant director for operations for Oregon's Department of Physical Education and Recreation, noting that The Playground's capacity was capped at 45 students at any given time. "They told us this was better than not opening at all."
"Students were extremely appreciative," Sicheneder adds. "They were glad to have something that seemed a little bit normal. We thought that requiring masks would be a challenge, but the students have embraced this opportunity. Wellness is our mission, and never more so than during a pandemic."
As many as 350 students per day use the WREC 2.0, well below the average of 2,000 daily visitors at the original WREC when it was open. But such comparisons aren't as relevant as the lessons Sicheneder says he and his team have learned from this experience.
"We're seeing female students using certain pieces of equipment more often now, like the squat racks," he says. "Because the parking garage is like a giant Costco warehouse, they're not passing a bunch of guys on weight benches on their way to the squat racks. We've always paid attention to where we locate equipment, but now we're going to think even more about layout. How can we encourage some of the good things we've seen in the parking garage to happen inside once we go back? Greater emphasis on equipment placement is one way to do that."
When Chico State and other colleges and universities reopen the doors to their own facilities, campus recreation staff might want to allow extra time to inspect all of the equipment that remained unused for months.
"In some cases, everything within the facility might have been shut down, including the HVAC systems," says Chuck Rogers, president of Full Circle Padding, a NIRSA associate member and Norton, Mass.-based company that sells replacement pads, parts and accessories for strength and fitness equipment. "When that happens, the humidity builds up and you'll eventually see a ton of moisture on the equipment, which can lead to rust. In fact, I think you might see more damage on that unused indoor equipment than the equipment you take outdoors."
He suggests consulting with the campus facilities team or a local HVAC company to make sure each room in a temporarily unoccupied recreation center is receiving the proper amount of climate control.
COVID-19 and other viruses can fester in exposed foam beneath cracked upholstery. Rogers recommends keeping an eye on equipment padding after a facility reopens, saying, "There's going to be stuff growing on the foam, and you can't clean that."
Chico State plans to keep its fitness operations in the parking garage for the remainder of the spring semester, with an eye toward reopening the recreation center at limited capacity in the summer.
Meanwhile, Oregon reopened its recreation center March 1 and brought its programming back inside. But Harrison has no regrets about leveraging the facility's easy access to the outdoors when students needed it most.
"With the pandemic, there was more emphasis on our students' mental health and being active," he says. "If you can move things outside, do it. That option was available to us, so we were committed to it."
That said, the tent covering The Playground remains — just in case another shutdown looms. "Given how COVID works, with cases rising and falling," Weaver says, "we left it up as a safety net."
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Inside out: How two rec centers relocated fitness programming ." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.