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BELFAST, Maine — Jennifer Craig was checking into the Waldo County YMCA recently when she heard the front desk phone ring twice in the span of just a few minutes.
Both calls were from members who were canceling their memberships. They weren’t outliers, either. The calls started in March, when the facility shut its doors because of the pandemic, and haven’t slowed since its June reopening. Employees were hesitant to disclose how many of the roughly 4,200 members have canceled — but it’s a lot, they said.
Craig, a Belfast resident who joined the Y as soon as she moved back home to Maine from Massachusetts last summer, was dismayed. How long, she wondered, could the nonprofit community center manage to keep the wolves at bay with people canceling their memberships at such a clip?
“I was just appalled,” she said. “It’s a community resource that was built, brick by brick, with regular people’s money. It wasn’t some hugely endowed facility. The community built it, and now it could really come apart.”
The Waldo County YMCA — which in ordinary times bustles with year-round fitness classes, swim meets, preschool, day camps and more — is far from alone in this struggle. Across Maine and the country, YMCAs are facing hard times because of the pandemic. Some members have lost jobs and are unable to pay monthly dues. Others are avoiding the workout rooms and group exercise classes because of fears about the coronavirus.
Either way, it means the nonprofit is scrambling to make do with a lot less revenue, and in some communities, it’s proven to be an impossible juggling act. YMCAs have permanently closed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; South Bend, Indiana; Pennsylvania; and the Metro Chicago area, among other locations.
Peter Farragher, CEO of the Down East Family YMCA in Hancock County, said his facilities are not immune.
“We’re all having the same challenges,” he said. “All the staff are back, but our usage is down, and slow. Child care is coming back, but not to the level it was before. Our loss of income is significant.”
Bruce Osgood, membership director of the Waldo County YMCA, said that whenever a branch closes, it is troubling.
“It’s scary,” he said. “That’s our Y family, and it’s hard to hear that. We don’t want that to happen here. We know what they mean to their community, because we know what we mean to ours.”
So Osgood and others at the Waldo County YMCA are working to promote new safety protocols, so that more people feel comfortable about returning.
“I love word of mouth,” Sue Lapham, the director of administration, said. “Members are telling their friends they need to come back.”
When they do, here’s what they’ll find: a clean facility scrubbed by maintenance staff after the March closure and constantly by employees throughout the day; limits on the number of people in the fitness room and other spaces; group exercise classes held outside; masks worn when social distancing is impossible; and for the first time, reservations are required.
“We’re trying to meet people where they are,” Osgood said. “Everybody’s in a different place.”
But despite the pandemic, they know the services the Y provides matters to the community — and its three-month closure was hard on a lot of members who rely on the facility for their social and physical needs. Lapham recalled an older member who grew emotional when it reopened.
“He’s the toughest guy I know,” she said. “But the first time he came in, he was crying.”
Osgood said it was especially tough for people who live alone or are isolated.
That’s why the steady stream of phone calls from people who are canceling their memberships has been discouraging. In 2018, about 85 percent of the Y’s roughly $1.8 million annual operating budget came from membership dues and other program revenue, according to public tax filings. And when so many members cancel, it’s a problem.
“We’re not looking to make a dollar, but we can’t lose a dollar, either,” he said.
So far, the Waldo County YMCA hasn’t had to lay off any of its 14 full-time and 50 part-time employees — and Osgood wants to keep it that way.
“We want to make sure that when this is all over, we have a place for them to come back to,” said Osgood, who hopes that members who can afford to keep paying their dues will do so.
Farragher, at the Down East Family YMCA, said that the pandemic is a big challenge — but it’s not insurmountable.
“We’ve just all got to work together as a community, from our local restaurants to our nonprofits,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get through this. We have to.”
Tally Avener of Belfast, a Waldo County YMCA member who had swung by to keep her swimming pool reservation, grew emotional when she talked about the role it plays in her life.
“The facility means the world to me. It’s like my second home,” she said. “I thought I was going to die before they opened back up, because it’s so important to me.”
She said members should get in there as soon as they feel safe.
“Only don’t take my spot in the pool,” she said.