In this series, we learn from small businesses across the country how they are adapting in the world of COVID-19.

The YMCA of Greater Nashua operates four facilities (Nashua YMCA, Merrimack YMCA, Westwood Park YMCA, and Camp Sargent). The primary program and service areas are: Child Care, Camping, Youth Sports, Teen Leadership, Health & Wellness, Aquatics, Dance and the Arts.  We spoke with Chief Operating Officer, Joseph Manzoli about how they are handling their reopening strategy.


What precautions are you taking to reopen your fitness center? 

We have the benefit of being a part of the larger YMCA movement. While every YMCA operates independently from one another, we are in constant contact with the YMCA of the USA as well as YMCA’s around the country…some of whom have already opened. Additionally, we are in close contact with the Governor’s office, our local Public Health Department and the CDC as they work through guidelines for facilities like ours. We have done thorough cleaning and disinfecting of our branches while we’ve been closed and we moved early to secure PPE and cleaning supplies so we are prepared when we re-open. We have set up plexiglass screens at all places in the facilities where members could have one-on-one interaction with staff, we are creating signage throughout the facilities to reinforce physical distancing and we’re developing plans for a phased re-opening where some of our normal programs may have to wait a while before starting back up. It is not just our fitness programs that we have to worry about…we have summer camp, child care, youth programs and more that all need their own plans for reopening. We have more than 500 children in our child care programs and more than a 1000 kids a day in our summer programs. We take this very seriously. 


What are you doing now that you weren't previously? 

Very soon after closing our facilities, we redeployed our team to focus on the needs of our community. Our YMCA is one of the largest child care providers in the region and we wanted to ensure we used that experience to meet the needs of essential workers. In the first week after we closed our facilities, connected with area hospitals to provide child care to their employees so they could do their important work with a peaceful mind knowing their children were well cared for. As time moved on, we expanded that service to other essential employees such as grocery store workers, military families, utility workers and more. In addition to child care, we partnered with other area agencies to address food insecurity by delivering fresh food to different neighborhoods in the city every day. We also wanted to keep our members engaged and combat anxiety by creating “Beyond Our Walls”, a robust offering of virtual exercise programs and youth activities. The response to those programs has been tremendous. We have also stayed connected to our members involved in our community integrated health programs such as Livestrong, a program for cancer survivors; the Diabetes Prevention Program; and Prescribe the Y, a program that addresses youth obesity. It was important to us that those groups stay connected and feel supported. Lastly, we were concerned with growing issues around loneliness amongst our Seniors and so we created “Operation REACH” in which we call to check in on them, see what they need and give them opportunities to connect with others. All the while, we’ve been hard at work on what our YMCA will look like when we re-open and beyond. For more than 130 years, our YMCA has served this community by adapting to community need. We anticipate we will come out of this even stronger. 


How are you communicating to your members about your re-opening plans? 

We have been in constant communication with our members via social media, email and physical mail letting them know what we’re doing now to serve the community and the role they can play with that work. It has been two way communication as we have been doing a lot of listening to our members about what will help them feel comfortable when we re-open and providing them opportunities to help now. We’ve had lots of masks made by volunteers for our child care workers! We recently sent a survey to our more than 20,000 members letting them know what our current thinking is for what things will look like when we re-open and to hear how that feels to them. Based on all of the guidance we’re receiving from partners around the country and the feedback from our members, we are creating a “Member Playbook” that will very clearly layout all of the things we’re doing to keep them safe and what expectations we will have of them. We all play a role in supporting the overall health of the community so it is important that we all, staff and members, understand how we contribute to that public health.  


How are you communicating changes about fitness center operations to your members?  

It is more important than ever that we communicate with our members in a clear and consistent manner. As much as we want to ensure we have the same high quality experience for those we serve, the reality is that things will be different. Members will need to have their temperatures checked when they arrive and answer a brief health questionnaire, equipment will be spaced out throughout the facility, limits will be placed on the number of people who can be in various spaces, certain services won’t be available on Day 1 and so it is critical that we get that information out in every format we can to eliminate confusion when we open. We will be sending the “Member Playbook” out through various methods, we will have enhanced signage throughout the building and we will be creating videos walking members through the new “Member Experience” that will be sent out in the week before we open. There’s a training component of this as well for our staff. Not only do we have to ensure our employees know what our new systems will be, we have to prepare them for handling potentially challenging conversations with members who don’t agree with our new procedures.  


What challenges did you have to overcome? 

I think it’s an understatement to say this is all new to us! We had to pivot quickly to the new services we were providing and we had to do that with a vastly reduced work force and the remaining team working remotely. The YMCA is not generally a “work from home” kind of operation so we had to figure that out along the way. We’ve come pretty far, but after 8 weeks, we still hear “You’re on mute” in pretty much every meeting. We also had to move quickly to ensure the long term health of the YMCA and look for support to further our cause of strengthening the foundations of community. The response has been humbling and reinforces our commitment to our mission. There’s also the challenge of how we continue to offer services to our community when we can’t always bring people together. We partner with a local school district to run a summer program for children from lower income families who have fallen behind in school. This summer, the need for this program is greater than ever but it’s still unclear whether we can run that program in the schools so we’re developing ways of running the program remotely while ensuring that the kids get the same quality experience. 


How are you taking care of your employees? 

Our employees are our lifeblood and are the reason our members feel so connected to the Y. When we’re fully operational, we have more than 400 employees and we want those employees to feel safe and comfortable when they come back to serve our members. We have been working on ensuring we have proper protection for our staff and procedures in place to keep them healthy. We will be re-orienting our staff as they return to work so they have all the tools they need to do their job. This time has been difficult for us and them. Like most businesses, we had to make some difficult decisions early on around layoffs and reduction of hours. We’re proud that we’ve been able to support those staff in various ways over the last couple of months and we look forward to bringing folks back as we’re able.  


What opportunities do you discover coming out of this situation? 

We’ve always known that the YMCA is not simply a place to exercise or learn to swim, it’s a vital part of our society focused on nurturing the potential of kids and teens, improving the physical and mental health of our community and providing support to our neighbors. This crisis has only reinforced that. We’re a nimble organization that can adapt to the needs of those around us. What we’ve discovered is that there are different ways of meeting those needs. I believe we will continue to offer and expand upon our virtual programming as well as take our services into neighborhoods to improve access. We know that we’re at our best when we’re building relationships, creating a sense of belonging and helping people achieve their individual goals. We now know that we can do this in a variety of ways. There are even deeper opportunities now for partnering with other organizations and engaging volunteers to address social needs. This crisis has exposed deep inequities in communities around the country and there’s a renewed commitment to address those social and health inequities and ensure everyone has access to what they need to be successful.  


We held a fun Drive-By Easter Bunny event around Easter time. It was great to see the children and parents who are part of our YMCA community.  


What advice or tips do you have for other fitness centers/other personal services who are about to reopen?  

We had to close our operations quickly…we should reopen them slowly. As I said earlier, we all play a role in protecting the public health so we need to be deliberate in creating an environment where people can take care of their personal health while ensuring the public good. We all want to get back to “normal” quickly, but it’s important to come up with plans for a phased re-opening that reintroduces services when the community is ready. We have to also think about the capacity of our staff as we bring them back to this new environment. It’s another case for moving slowly so they can adapt without being overwhelmed. We can all learn from one another so I encourage everyone to look at similar businesses as well as businesses that are totally different from ours. We’ve had lots of conversations about what we’ve liked and what we haven’t in other areas we’re doing business at, whether that’s in person or online. What’s our version of “curbside pickup”? Outside of that, my advice is to get creative around how you define your work. There’s tremendous opportunity for us all to be better than ever. Whatever you’re thinking…think bigger!