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 it wasn’t really a choice at all.
"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."
Spence’s trip through COVID has been a long one.
And while his refusal to comply with the provincial vaccine rules has now resulted in two $5,000 fines, he insists he has no choice.
In fact, Spence said if he did limit his clientele to vaccinated people, he would have gone out of business in one month.
Spence is not an example of a typical "antivaxxer" and said he’s not against the vaccine.
In fact he himself is double vaccinated, something he said he did because he wanted to be a part of bringing the province to a rate of 80 percent vaccinated, at which time he thought businesses could operate normally again.
He’s also dutifully 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.
And it has taken a toll. Fitness Zone had 928 members before COVID 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 percent capacity for the majority of the rest.
While he benefitted 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 simply 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 their 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 the 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 on a loan to BDC, who then went after him for the full amount.
In the end, he sold the land he had set aside to purchase his sports centre building.
Spence said he was left with his house and his gym, with his vision and dream of a new sports centre 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.
Called "Fitness Zone – Fight for Small Business" the account was posted on Monday, totaling $2,050 in donations in by Saturday morning. The goal is set at $100,000.
Spence said his position of non-compliance has resulted in support from the community as well as some criticism. "It’s not about making people happy right now, it’s about fighting for survival," he said.
It’s difficult for Spence to see a positive ending at this point, and he had trouble envisioning what life could be like a year or two down the road.
"I can only deal with one day at a time," he said. "I just want the opportunity to rebuild my business. I have to sit here and watch everything disappear every day."