Owners of two hibernating Capital Region businesses are going in opposite directions to end the shutdown they fear will close their doors permanently:
A jiu-jitsu academy in Malta opened its doors and resumed classes Wednesday, weeks in advance of any state-authorized reopening, while a dance school in Niskayuna is obeying the rules but pleading with the state to move it to an early phase of reopening.
Both have prepared extensive protocols to keep their students and teachers safe from COVID-19, the pandemic virus that has infected roughly 1 in 50 New Yorkers and killed more than 23,000, leading Gov. Andrew Cuomo to order sweeping restrictions on businesses and gatherings of all sizes.
The difference is that Eddie Fyvie Jiu-Jitsu Academy implemented its protocol and reopening without asking local or state permission, while Dance Fire Studio & Fitness is presenting its protocol to the state and asking it to consider earlier reopening.
Few activities are so utterly the opposite of social distancing as two panting athletes locking up and grappling on a mat. Which is why Eddie Fyvie won’t have them doing that until the pandemic is over.
“We’ve gotten to the point where I feel it is safe to reopen,” Fyvie said Wednesday afternoon, hours before teaching his first in-person class since mid-March.
He added: “Classes here are by no means going to be normal.”
Students will enter one by one, have their temperature taken, use sanitizer on feet as well as hands, not come near each other, wear a rash guard under their uniform, clean their gear after every lesson, not share grappling dummies, and affirm that they haven’t been near any known COVID patients and don’t have an elderly person in their household. Also, everything in the studio will be sanitized between classes.
Fyvie gained a national audience briefly Tuesday night on FOX News when Tucker Carlson interviewed him about his decision, and he has received messages of support and criticism from near and far. Carlson made clear his criticism of the shutdowns imposed by Cuomo and other governors, but Fyvie made clear he’s not making a statement about politics, just trying to save his business and give his students back something they enjoy.
“This isn’t a call to arms and I’m not trying to put together a mutiny, it’s really just a plea,” he told The Gazette. “To be clear, I’m not trying to incite anyone.”
Fyvie said he wears a mask when rules require it, such as when entering a store, or when respect for someone else’s circumstances dictates it. But otherwise, he’s maskless.
He’s not requiring students to wear masks, either, because they will be so far apart.
“I’ve taken the most contact-heavy martial art and made it non-contact,” he said.
Fyvie didn’t ask permission from local or state officials to reopen or even tell them about his decision. He just did it. He hasn’t decided what to do if authorities come knocking, but believes the situation was coming to a head regardless of what he did: Either he’d remain closed and risk insolvency (like the 100,000-plus New York small businesses that have closed forever, by Cuomo’s count) or he’d jump the gun and reopen now with a version of the safety rules that will be required in the future, whenever the new normal arrives.
Fyvie, 32, is a Schenectady native and now Saratoga Springs resident who got into martial arts at age 10 and went into professional mixed martial arts at age 18. After a decade of that, “I kind of fell out of love with fighting and more in love with teaching,” he said. He opened in Malta first, followed by a Niskayuna location a year and a half ago. The two schools have more than 200 students and 15 instructors combined.
They’ve had to refund students’ membership fees, and the expenses are mounting, Fyvie said.
“I’ve had the greatest level of support from my members,” he said. “But as time goes on it adds up.”
He’s trying to keep his business alive now.
“I don’t know what else I would do in my life, this is my love. I just want to have the business open.”
Dance Fire co-owners Florin Vlad and Natalia O’Connor feel their Niskayuna dance studio has been unfairly grouped with other businesses that bring large numbers of people together in close proximity, such as theaters and sporting events.
“Our bread and butter is not huge gatherings, it’s one-on-one things,” Vlad told The Gazette on Wednesday.
O’Connor, an American, and Vlad met in Vlad's native Romania as teens and have been together since then, first as competitive dancers then also as a couple and finally as spouses. They opened their business in 2017; the Nott Street studio sees roughly 50 regular students each week, plus others who take instruction irregularly.
“Our business was growing, our business was really thriving,” Vlad said. “Of course this was going to be our best year ever, last year was our best year ever, this year was going to top it by a lot.”
The shutdown ended that hope.
Dance Fire received $10,000 through the COVID-19 Small Business Continuity Grant Program offered by the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, which was greatly appreciated and not nearly enough, Vlad said.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “It’s helping, we’re very grateful, but we want to get back to work.”
Some students are hesitant to return for fear of contagion, Vlad said.
“But a big part of our community can’t wait to come back. Many participate in online classes and courses. But of course that’s not the same.”
Vlad and O’Connor say the state’s phased reopening schedule puts them in Phase 4, at least five weeks in the future, along with other businesses deemed high-risk and non-essential.
They’ve come up with a plan that they feel would qualify them for Phase 2, which could start as early as next week in the Capital Region if the pandemic continues to wane here.
The protocol is similar to Fyvie’s plan and to so many other business plans during the pandemic: Staggered arrivals and departures, plexiglass shields at the reception desk, temperature checks for arriving students, movable walls to separate people in the 5,000-square-foot studio, and so on.
One other point: There's not a new herd of strangers walking through the front door every day, it's people the instructors know and have a working relationship with, for the most part.
Vlad said they’ve considered going ahead and re-opening out of order and without permission, but are held back by respect for the rules and fear of the consequences, plus the knowledge that someone would likely report them.
“I feel like our patience is slowly running out, especially when I see other businesses who are in lesser position to enforce rules are allowed to open up,” Vlad said.