Debra Bassin: Courage and Grit Personified
Surviving the Pandemic
Oh, COVID. The elephant in the room. We are all so exhausted by this persistent disruption in our concept of “normal” that we just don’t want to deal with it anymore. At this point, what is “normal”? We don’t want to think about it, talk about it, yet we are powerless not to. We want to live our lives, exist in whatever way we want to, run our businesses and send our kids to school the way we used to. Now, the discourse is about the political and culture wars over masks and vaccinations. Yuck.
Imagine how a microscopic, spiky particle can cause such chaos in our lives. But I digress…
All businesses large and small were adversely affected in so many ways. We still feel the sting of supply chain issues, even though we now can find toilet paper and Clorox wipes on the shelves. Restaurants have trouble holding onto workers because people still don’t feel safe being back in the workplace. Remote options have become a mainstream practice in business and education; snow days now seem to be a thing of the past. In effect, most every workplace has had to shift their business model in order to survive.
Fortunately, Debby was able to survive the yuck and got her business back on its feet as the state of New Jersey started to allow fitness facilities to reopen. Flipper’s was closed for about six months – a scary prospect for a new business owner just trying to break even. Every month she couldn’t run classes was one step closer to financial ruin. She did secure a PPP loan, which helped to cover rent and utilities, but it didn’t stop the mounting anxiety levels; as far as she knew, she would have to pay that loan back, which would add more to her existing startup debt.
There were definitely times I thought it was going to end. It was pretty scary.
While everyone was locked down at home, Debby took the time to fill in applications for more financial assistance. Wading through oceans of red tape, jumping and flipping through hoops, she applied for a federal COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and a Bergen County Cares grant, both of which she received. She was also approved for PPP forgiveness in February 2021, so she was fortunate not to have to pay that back; a small financial reprieve that kept the balance in her favor.
Watching the news like we all did, she waited patiently for the CDC to release some guidance as to when and how fitness centers would be able to reopen. She was allowed to have a few private lessons as early as July, and spaced out the sessions so that she could disinfect every working surface that anyone touched. There were spray bottles and paper towels everywhere. I remember when we first returned, we’d work on the trampoline station and when we were done, we’d furiously spritz and scrub the bed and surrounding padding with disinfectant, being careful not to step or breathe on it once we wiped it down. Looking back, it may have been overkill, but that’s the kind of person Debby is. She wasn’t taking any chances. She wanted her students to train and stay healthy doing so. She needed to get Flipper’s back on its feet and not risk any further closures.
In an effort to stay connected to her students, Debby held some Zoom conditioning classes from her basement, returning them to some much-needed consistency in their training. It wasn’t flipping, but at a minimum, it was a way to maintain their strength and flexibility as they sat at home, waiting for the gym to reopen. Initially, she didn’t charge for the virtual classes; she knew that everyone else’s personal finances were likely hurting just as much as hers were. Eventually, she did decide to charge a nominal fee. After all, she was providing a service to her clientele in whatever way she could.
As the pandemic unfolded, I watched Debby from the sidelines. We Geriatric Gymnasts also met with Debby on Zoom, both to keep ourselves in good condition, and to catch up with each other. We also wanted to keep tabs on Debby and see how she was holding up in the lockdown. We were worried about her; as positive a person as she is, we could see what a terrible toll this was taking on her. All she could do was take it day by day and hope that in the end, she would stay afloat. Thankfully, Deb has always been a smart cookie and put her extraordinary planning skills to work while at home. Changes needed to be made so she would be prepared for when she was given the green light.
September 1, 2020 was the official start date for New Jersey gyms to reopen – at 25% capacity. Significant aspects in the daily flow of her business had to be modified. Once again, Debby’s brain was mentally tumbling so she could set up her clients to safely do so physically. Of course, doing entry temperature checks and wearing masks were no-brainers, but how would she manage social distancing in a gym with kids? Like everything else, she figured it out. In no time, Flipper’s Gymnastics was back in full swing. While the state dictated that gyms were to operate at 25% capacity, that number was greater than Debby would ever have in the building in a single day. Effectively, her class schedule was able to run at 100%.
I was curious to know what changes she made that she stuck with on a permanent basis. How did her original business management plan shift as a result of the pandemic? This was a very interesting part of our conversation.
I remember the first time we came back to the gym after the lockdown closed everything down in March. Masks were a requirement for anyone to operate in public. It was also still hot, humid and sticky in late July when I visited for a private workout. While jumping on the trampoline, breathing was near impossible, even with the giant garage doors wide open and industrial fans blowing. Just as I thought of complaining about it, I thought of the entire medical community who had to wear multiple layers of masks and shields for hours to protect everyone from the spiky devil. I decided if they could do that all day every day, I could wear one for a 90-minute workout. I didn’t want to put Debby’s young business in any more peril.
Shut up, mask up and flip.
For the foreseeable future, masking would become the norm that everyone would just have to get used to.
Pre-COVID, I was quite proud of and happy with the fact that most activities you go to, you drop off your child, the door closes, and you don’t get to see their activity.
I had always let parents into the gym.
Knowing how helicopter-y and rowdy some parents can be nowadays, I had a lot of respect for Debby for taking this step and allowing the parents to observe their children’s progress inside the gym. Only once did she ever have to eject a parent for being loud, disruptive, embarrassing and distracting. Despite that one problem parent, she thought it was a great practice; COVID put the kibosh on that idea. Once the gym was allowed to reopen, she realized that she could not have any extra bodies in the space who didn’t need to be there. She changed the traffic pattern of entry from the front to the back of the building, eliminating the locker room space. Parents would drop off their masked kids outside to a staff member who was waiting for them with the scanning thermometer, and the door would close.
In my humble opinion, I think it’s much better that the parents aren’t hovering in the space. They are not coaches, and they tend to create more tension for both the instructors and their own kids. Their post-class dinner conversation should focus on how the child enjoyed the class rather than dissecting why something did or didn’t happen that the parent observed in a moment of the class. However, in another wave of smart thinking, Debby did create a compromise – she set up a Zoom link that broadcasts the activities inside the gym, so if parents really wanted to watch, they could sign in to the secure link and watch from the car.
Reorganizing the spatial flow
Debby rearranged the gym so that there would be specific stations and set the class rotation schedule according to those designated areas.
Classes would have to follow a specific flow so that no two classes would interact with one another.
To me, the new space looked like a giant maze that classes would weave through. I also got a glimpse of a class schedule, which was hyper-organized down to the minute. Instructors had to be very mindful of when it was time to stop and move on to the next station; class management was handled with Swiss clock-like precision.
Early in the re-opening, to prevent unnecessary interactions, Debby had to eliminate makeups for missed classes. Students had a specific training cohort to which they belonged. Pre-COVID, when someone missed a class, they could drop in and take a class at some other time in the schedule. Debby needed to minimize any unnecessary mingling of kids outside their regular classes, so makeups had to be put on the back burner. Eventually, once the virus spike diminished, she reinstated them.
Tuition payments also became an issue when the lockdown hit. The gym had just finished session three. Session four payments were in the bank. Shutting down meant that Debby had to figure out what to do with that money since she didn’t know when the gym would reopen so she could honor those payments. She created a few options for parents to choose from:
- OPTION 1: an 8-week credit once they reopened, plus a 10% family loyalty discount for sticking with her, as well as a free training day
- OPTION 2: if payment was not yet rendered, parents could pay a $15 deposit and she would match it when she reopened
- OPTION 3: full refund
What surprised her the most was the amount of people who chose option 1. That is a testament to Debby as a business owner. Her clients love and respect her. They knew that they would be returning when was allowed to open. Since then, she made the decision to bill solely month to month. That way, she wouldn’t be holding onto months worth of tuition payments or have to make huge refunds if there was another shutdown.
I wanted to include a side note here, which ties into the challenges that the pandemic presented, but this one had more of a personal effect on Debby. In our conversation, I asked if she has been able to keep up her training and if she ever gets coached by someone else. After all, it’s hard to diagnose your own training issues; that’s what another set of experienced eyes is for. The short answer: I don’t and no. Pre-COVID, another Geriatric Gymnast friend of ours, with whom we have trained for many years and still retains some ridiculous skills, would come every Thursday morning to the adult class. She and Deb would workout together before class, and Debby would get some much-desired coaching in for herself from her good friend. Alas, once the shutdown happened that all stopped.
Of course, Debby does get to use her own equipment whenever she wants and she enjoys showing off to her young proteges during their classes, but she laments the fact that she misses her training partner. Training is never the same when you are on your own. Some changes caused by the pandemic did not work out so favorably. Hopefully, we will someday emerge from the shadow of viral fear.
Debby took the chaos that required us to reimagine our pandemic existence as an opportunity for growth. While we were technically forced to make changes, the situation also gave some of us the mental space to be more creative. We had to think out of the box in order to consider different ideas that we never before would have because, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when you have to fix it, like Debby did, you might just discover a more desirable situation, even after the original reason for the change goes away. She found that so many of the new systems she put in place actually work better. Sometimes, being pushed to change makes us think about how to utilize our precious resources more economically and efficiently.
As Debby sees it now, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to revert to her old systems. Live and learn, day by day. If she’s learned anything from this experience, it’s how to be fluid, adaptable and open to new possibilities.
In part five of Debra Bassin: Courage and Grit Personified, I’ll reveal some final thoughts that Debby shared with me in our conversation. If you’re just tuning in now, you can start reading from the beginning of her profile series, Part 1: Who is Debby?. If you’d like to read from the beginning of my Geriatric Gymnastics blog series, click on I am a Gymnastics Addict. You’ll get an inside glimpse of the middle-age mind of an adult gymnast. Happy reading!
If you are in the Ramsey area and would like to learn more about Debby’s gym, visit the Flipper’s Gymnastics website.