A Steinbach gym owner is refusing to limit his clientele to vaccinated people, as required by provincial health orders.
Les Spence, owner of Fitness Zone, made the decision as the new requirements came in early September, but said he had no choice.
"I’ve worked all my life to get to the place I am, and I’ve lost almost everything I have," he said. "I don’t know if I can recover."
His refusal to comply with the provincial vaccine rules has resulted in two $5,000 fines being levied against him.
"I've worked all my life to get to the place I am, and I've lost almost everything I have... I don't know if I can recover." –Les Spence
Spence said if he did limit his clientele to vaccinated people, he would have gone out of business in one month.
Spence said he got double-vaccinated because he wanted to help bring the province to a rate of 80 per cent vaccinated. He thought that would allow businesses to operate normally.
He’s also observed all COVID regulations, including closing his doors when he had to, and reducing the number of users. His facility is cleaned every day, masks are enforced, physical distancing is required and every user wipes down every machine after use.
It has taken a toll. Fitness Zone had 928 members before COVID-19 struck. That’s down to the 300 range now. Spence said he’s been closed for nine of the last 18 months, and restricted to 25 per cent capacity for the majority of the rest.
While he benefited from government assistance early in the pandemic, Spence said the cheques were never enough to replace the lost income. The latest rules come with no financial help, which is why Spence said he couldn’t afford to comply.
"I don’t have a choice," he said.
Spence said initially new rules came with "goalposts", something that’s missing now. He criticized Premier Kelvin Goertzen’s message to "be calm."
"How do you be calm when they’re taking everything we have… everything that we’ve worked for," he asked. "All I want is a chance to work hard to try and rebuild my business to the point where it was before."
A gym owner in Steinbach since his 1994 purchase of Maximum Fitness, Spence had big plans for the community.
Before COVID, Spence purchased property on Loewen Boulevard to build a $5-million sports centre. Financing was in place until the last minute. In March 2020, he said BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) backed out of its part in financing his purchase. That resulted in a lawsuit from the building’s owner who had been promised the sale that could no longer go through.
Debt he held with BDC caused him problems, as Spence said they would not stop payments during COVID. That was in stark contrast to his experience with Access Credit Union, Steinbach Credit Union and Caisse Populaire. "They were amazing," he said of the local financial institutions. "When the government shut us down for the first time, they postponed our payments for six months."
With very little income coming in, Spence said he was forced to stop paying a loan to BDC, which went after him for the full amount.
In the end, he sold the land he had set aside for the sports centre.
Spence said he was left with his house and his gym. His vision of a new sports centre was gone, along with hope of a retirement. At 58, Spence said he’s not sure what that will look like now.
In the meantime, Spence said he will fight the tickets in court, and has launched a GoFundMe account to pay for it. As of Wednesday, he had received $2,300 of his $100,000 goal.
Spence said he has received support and criticism from the community. "It’s not about making people happy right now, it’s about fighting for survival," he said.
"I just want the opportunity to rebuild my business. I have to sit here and watch everything disappear every day."
— Steinbach Carillon