by Mark Van Streefkerk
For most of its members, returning to the YMCA means adapting to a new normal of gym life during a pandemic. Members can now sign up in advance to reserve 45-minute time slots for workouts, including swim sessions. Temperature checks, face masks, and adherence to other safety protocols are all required. Nearly all YMCAs in King County, including South King County’s Meredith Mathews, Matt Griffin, and Kent locations, reopened for member use on Aug. 19, in accordance with Governor Inslee’s fitness guidance for Phases 2 and 3. Adapting to a new normal of pandemic-adapted fitness, however, is just the tip of the iceberg for the nonprofit’s community outreach.
“Although we stopped serving members in our facility [in March], we never really closed our doors,” said Alonda Williams, senior vice president and chief experience officer for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. “Right away we focused on making sure that we were taking care of first responders by caring for their children. We did emergency child care right away [and] we continued our hunger programs … It was something that we were committed to from the very beginning.”
In mid-March, right as YMCAs across the county closed their gym facilities, the organization unified to meet crucial community needs. “We turned [our locations] into child care facilities,” Williams affirmed, noting that combined Y locations provided more than 17,000 hours of child care to first responders and over 300,000 meals to youth and families with the support of partners like Safeway and Microsoft. “Many of those kids would have been on free or reduced lunch, so without being in school [they] might not have otherwise had support,” she noted.
The Y continued offering shelter and services to underhoused youth, in addition to creating hundreds of virtual classes, including everything from group fitness, book clubs, and language classes to Community Cafés in English and Spanish. They also started a special outreach program for seniors in the Y community, a population especially susceptible to isolation during the pandemic. “We were able to reach out and connect with almost 7,000 seniors to date by making phone calls each week and checking in on them,” Williams said.
Since youth summer camps were cancelled, the Y pivoted to “Camp in a Box,” a format where educational materials and hands-on activities were prepackaged in boxes and made available for families to pick up. Boxes included arts and crafts supplies and prompts to encourage outdoor activities like games and scavenger hunts. Now the Y offers “After School in a Box” featuring educational enrichment through topics like music, STEM, comic books, dinosaurs, physics, Spanish, and more. The boxes are part of the Y’s virtual afterschool enrichment programs, weekly online sessions available for grades one through six. Enrichment programs range from $60 (3-week session) to $100 (5-week session) for Y members, and $85 (3-week session) to $140 (5-week session) for non-Y members. Learn more about the Y’s after-school in-person or hybrid enrichment programs here. In keeping with the Y’s mission to make programs equitable for all, financial aid and scholarships are available.
Coming this fall is an expansion of telehealth, providing both mental and behavioral health services. In the past, those services were usually reserved for youth, but now therapists are able to support all age groups. Part of the online mental health support includes virtual workshops “on everything from suicide prevention to dealing with difficult situations to social isolation,” Williams observed.
Working out at the Y is a totally new experience under guidance from the Governor’s Safe Start Phased Reopening. For starters, social distancing in fitness requires a 300 square foot per person distance. The Y has reduced capacity in every facility and increased the amount of space that a person needs around them.
Y facilities have improved filtration systems, increasing the amount of fresh air coming into the building as opposed to recycled air. Right now, only members can work out at Y locations and need to book a reservation for a 45-minute time slot at least two days in advance. Time slots can be booked for individuals or families. The Y encourages members to come dressed in their workout clothes, bringing only a face mask, water bottle, and personal towel since locker room access and towel service is unavailable. Members are asked to arrive 10 minutes before their session for a health screening that includes a temperature check and stop at a sanitation station. Face masks are required at all times, with the exception of during strenuous exercise.
The Y also has a safety plan in case of COVID-19 exposure. “Because of the reservations, we’re able to determine where people were if someone was in the building at the time that a [COVID-19-]infected person came in,” Williams said. Those who were in the building at the same time as the infected person will be notified. In all King County locations, there has been only one reported instance of a COVID-19-infected person at the Y.
Member feedback has been very positive so far, Williams said. “We’ve asked them how they feel on a scale of one to five, with five being very safe, and we’re right near five, which is great.”
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.