Safety-first policy will mean big changes at Inverness Leisure

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When Inverness Leisure reopens it will be a very different place.

Sports news and views

by our sports correspondent                                                                                          

GOING into the coronavirus lockdown, although unsettling and even traumatic, was an awful lot easier to manage than coming out of it. That’s becoming clearer by the day.

Back in March doors were closed, gates were locked, shutters went up and the busiest parts of Inverness became lifeless, almost overnight. Now the task ahead is bringing life back into the city.

And one of the biggest challenges of all is facing High Life Highland, who are assessing the implications for reopening the Inverness Leisure centre.

High Life Highland bosses are looking at the prospects for reopening the full range of facilities they run, with early focus on how things will shape up at the Botanic Gardens.

Working out how to allow people to stroll in safety through the floral arrangements will be a walk in the park compared with reopening the sprawling facility a couple of hundred yards away from it.

How many people use the leisure centre in the course of a week, how many repeat visits do they make? The total must run into the thousands.

At peak times the venue can be overcrowded, but the upside of that is the pumped-up buzz and energy which floods through it. It’s a motivating factor in itself.

Over the past three months I’ve bumped into other regular gym users – the area I go to five or six days a week – and they can’t wait for it to get back in action.

But, as we look upon the difficulties management face even in that one section, it’s not going to be the gym we’ve known and become so devoted – or in some cases addicted – to.

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A packed building and a crowded gym will not be an option for the foreseeable future.

Before shutdown, from 5pm-8pm it was very busy and often packed. Frequently you had to wait to get on a bike, often you had to wait to get on a treadmill, even though there are around 20 of them, all the rowing machines would be in use, every piece of exercise equipment was taking the strain, sometimes you’d even struggle to get a space on the expansive exercise mat.

It can’t and won’t be like that from now on, or at least for an indeterminate time ahead.

Rightly or wrongly I’m not hyper-anxious about the virus threat, but I wouldn’t go into a pub anytime soon. And I don’t need scientific advice to incline me to carefully weigh up a return to the gym.

But that’s with an image in my mind of the Inverness Leisure centre as it used to be. And it’s not going to be like that anymore.

A crowded sweaty gym with people in very close proximity to each other, breathing hard and straining body and sinew is an impossibly risky environment in the current situation. There were frequently queues at the reception desk, which, if socially distanced now, would stretch out into the car park. Crowded changing rooms, busy corridors throughout the building? At busy times there was a huge amount of activity and a very large number of people there. It’ll have to be all-change in many ways now.

High Life Highland is looking at various options, including people having to book in advance, presumably for limited time slots.

High Life say on their overall policy: “We have identified that the increased use of technology will be vital to the process of reopening, allowing customers to book spaces and help us manage capacity within sites to ensure an enjoyable experience. We will monitor the guidelines closely over the coming weeks and will fully implement any further steps that may be required to protect people using our gym space for example prior to opening.”

That line of thinking is inevitable. But how many people would be put off by restricted access and the curbs and limitations it would bring? The appeal of Inverness Leisure was the free and easy access which meant you could go any time you wanted, and whenever you were in the mood.

Bookings and appointments have always been required for most exercise classes. But if that applied for general access to the facility – as may well turn out to be the case – it could and probably would be a deterrent to many people. As an avid gym user, it’s not an appealing prospect to me. How many other people would view it in the same way?

At the same time there will be recognition that Inverness Leisure users can’t have it both ways. If it’s accepted that the era of an unrestricted flood of people descending on the venue in the evenings and at weekends is over, at least for the foreseeable future, then a system of limited entry may well be the only other alternative.

Inverness Leisure offers a bargain basement deal for monthly use which makes it I believe the cheapest venue of its kind in Scotland. A relative who uses the Bells Sports Centre in Perth pays nearly twice as much per month, and, having visited Inverness Leisure, he says the facilities at the Bught venue are better than he’s used to.

It’s an excellent venue which offers great value for money. Like many if not most other users, it never occurred to me to cancel my monthly payments while it’s been closed, and that’s still not something I’m considering.

However, there are plenty other private leisure venues in Inverness, which are more expensive, but which some people may consider a more suitable alternative, as they’re a lot less busy and crowded.

As with so much else as we emerge blinking into this different new world, we’ll have to wait and see what lies ahead for the Inverness Leisure centre. But it’s clearly not going to be the same place as it used to be. And there’s no doubt some users will ponder whether to adjust and remain, or whether it’s time to make the difficult choice to depart.

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