by Colin Campbell
FIVE years ago Inverness Leisure closed down for 10 days over the festive period and seasonal goodwill evaporated with an outcry from regular users over being deprived of their exercise “fix” for so long. Strange as it may seem to regular couch potatoes, once you start using a treadmill, bike or rowing machine almost on a daily basis it’s a lot easier to get on than it is to get off. Centre management took heed of the protests and ever since have limited festive closure days as much as they can.
But 10 days? Looking back that seems like a half-time interval compared with the marathon five month closure brought about by the coronavirus.
So it’s no wonder yesterday’s announcement by Nicola Sturgeon that gyms and leisure facilities can open up again on August 31 – at least two weeks earlier than anticipated – will have been welcomed by so many.
That’s just over a week away. And where does it leave Inverness Leisure?
Management at High Life Highland, who run it, have had a great deal of planning to do on how reopening of a venue with so many customers would work.
They’ve welcomed the go-ahead for the range of facilities they operate across the Highlands but gave no specific details on by far the largest facility they operate, in Inverness.
Will Inverness Leisure be able to reopen as early as a week on Monday? Can they meet that advance schedule?
With many users having continued to support them by continuing paying monthly subscriptions throughout lockdown, the pressure is certainly on them to do so.
The days of packed gyms, busy changing rooms and corridors, and queues with people milling around the reception area there are over.
The facility will be very different from how it was before closure last March.
High Life Highland has faced the most difficult task of any organisation involved in planning reopening. With thousands of people keen to go there several times a week, how do they cater as best they can for their needs and still follow the safety guidelines required?
No-one should underestimate the difficulty and complexity of that challenge.
It’s one thing High Life reopening the Botanic Gardens, as they did a week or so ago. Inverness Leisure operates on a different scale entirely.
Advance bookings? Limited time slots? As I’ve said before, if the new system is too restrictive it could drive people away. The appeal for very many pre-lockdown was access whenever they wanted it and when they felt like going there. The urge to exercise can be an erratic and unpredictable feeling.
But at the same time the sweat-soaked risks of virus transmission are all too obvious, and have to be fully addressed.
High Life have a very difficult balance to strike.
When I’ve walked past the venue during its closure I’ve felt a distinct pang of sadness. A silent, empty shell, it has been symbolic like no other structure in the city of the difficult, dreary and desolate period we’ve gone through.
I was there on the last day before closure. There was hardly anyone around. People knew a storm was coming. The few of us who were there were only going through the motions. After many years of regularly going to the venue, it was all too obvious that it could be quite some time before we’d be back again.
Normally buzzing with activity and energy morning, noon and night, the spectacle of closed gates, darkened windows and not a soul to be seen has been a regular blow to morale.
All that could and should now change, in just over a week from now.
Inverness Leisure is the most important venue for health and mental wellbeing in the Highland capital. The benefits it brings to so many people cannot be underestimated.
What happens next? We’ll have to wait and see, but not for very long now.
There will be a huge amount of interest among thousands of people in Inverness about that.
But when the doors of the venue open again and life and energy flows back into a centre which has been empty and lifeless for so long, it will be a huge boost to morale for many, and maybe the clearest signal so far that at last we are clawing our way back to something approaching “normal”.