After 66 COVID-19 cases were linked to the E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center, President Brian Sandoval announced the facility would close by Thursday, Oct. 8. With the closure came the loss of 67 student jobs.
All 67 student employees found out at the same time as the rest of the campus.
“I found out from a friend of mine who texted me saying, ‘Hey, did you just lose your job?’,” said Kevin Finkler, a student employee at Wiegand.
According to University of Nevada, Reno graduate student and fitness center supervisor Taylor Dixon, she also found out she would be losing her job through the email. According to Dixon, professional staff at the facility knew Monday night but did not inform student staff.
“I was upset at first that we didn’t find out on Monday, but I also feel like there was probably a lot of shock and behind the scenes discussion going on from when the director found out to when the email got sent out. I know that that is not what the Director of Professional Staff wanted for the facilities, so I don’t think it was purposeful to leave staff in the dark,” said Dixon.
Fitness Center Director Jim Fitzsimmons did not immediately answer a request for comment regarding this timeline of notification.
“There definitely have been instances in the past where, as employees, we’re the last to find out things,” Finkler said.
On Monday, Oct. 5, the fitness center began closing twice a day for cleaning and sanitization. According to Finkler, employees were not notified directly, but rather found out through an Instagram post from the fitness center’s account, @unevadastrong.
Finkler and Dixon both feel the gym has been singled out. Dixon, a supervisor, said the gym was not made aware of the cases linked to the fitness center prior to the shutdown.
“I personally feel as though the president is blaming the student staff on the cases. And I feel like in his tweets and the way that he’s wording everything is that like, we didn’t do enough as a facility to combat this issue—not that the university didn’t do enough,” Dixon said.
Finkler expressed frustration as the staff has taken cautionary measures to sanitize and clean the facility, including buying new cleaning equipment and “thousands of dollars of getting new PPE.”
Both Finkler and Dixon stressed the need for the income from their jobs at the fitness center for both themselves and their coworkers.
“I depend on this income. I am a graduate student. I’m in 16 credits as a graduate student, and it’s also a requirement to be a full time student to work there, so I feel like I’m not able to find a job anywhere else that’s going to work with my schedule,” Dixon said.
Finkler echoed the concern regarding finding a job that works around a full class schedule.
“I rely on this money to pay for groceries and food and partially my rent,” Finkler said. “I’m a first generation low income student. I have no support from my family. This is the only job I work and it’s the only job I can work because of my class schedule, because it’s not realistic—I’m a double major too. This is the only little bit that I can get and this is barely making me get by right now.”
Currently, neither the university nor the Associated Students of the University of Nevada have released a plan for providing economic relief to the student employees impacted by the closure.
During an interview with the Nevada Sagebrush, ASUN President Dominique Hall said she has plans to meet with student employees and announce a plan in two weeks. On Wednesday, President Hall released a statement to her social media accounts saying she had changed her stance after meeting with President Sandoval to discuss the closure. President Hall initially disagreed with the shutdown, but on Wednesday said she understood the decision.
“I have a plan,” Hall said. “I am in control of the budget—our $2.9 million budget. I have a plan that I would like to announce myself. I’m going to be meeting with some employees from the gym next week, and the plan should be released and processed within two weeks.”
According to ASUN Senator and Chair of the Committee of Budget and Finance Corey Huber, moving funds from one department to another within ASUN is fairly simple.
A senator or student would need to write a piece of legislation that would include where the funds would be moved to, the amount being moved and an explanation for the proposed fund movement. The legislation would first move through the Committee on Budget and Finance and then discussed and voted on by the Senate.
Legislation can be written by a student, but would need to be sponsored by a senator.
Former College of Liberal Arts Senator Conner Doyle said both on Twitter and in an interview with the Nevada Sagebrush unused funds from the Department of Programming could be allocated to be emergency funds for the student employees. The Department of Programming was allocated $226,943 for the 2020-21 school year for wages, operating expenses and more, but currently, six of the nine positions are vacant.
Additionally, $185,000 has been allocated for the annual Welcome Week Concert, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is not likely that concert will happen, according to Doyle.
“We’ve given too many statements, especially the ASUN Senate has. I think it’s incredibly disappointing when we just release a statement and nothing happens. So I think they should put their money where their mouth is,” Doyle said.
Despite supporting the decision to close the facility to protect students and staff, many students wondered whether they’d be getting refunds now that they cannot use the facility. Each semester, every student pays $45 in student fees to the gym.
“I completely support the decision to protect students. However, if you’re going to close the gym and not pay the employees, which is the reason they gave us last semester, why they never gave us a refund, then I think a lot of students would appreciate a $30 refund from the gym that they no longer have access to because it’s not going towards student employees,” said Doyle.
Finkler echoed Doyle’s concern about refunds, adding that the fitness center made virtual exercise classes available on Canvas. However, Finkler feels this is not an adequate justification for keeping all of the student fees.
“From a student perspective, it’s frustrating to see that we’re only a month and a couple of weeks in and there’s no plan to refund student fees at all,” said Finkler. “I do know that we are continuing to offer online zoom drop in classes, which I arguably do not think that is the full fitness center fee of the $45 and for faculty that pay $120 per semester.”
President Sandoval said students will not receive any refunds from their student fees that are allocated to the fitness center.
“It’s a complicated decision, but part of those student fees go to pay the cost of the building, the bonds associated with the building…Part of that payment comes from the student fees associated with the gym,” President Sandoval said. “The second part of that is it’s not completely closed out. Students still have the ability to check out equipment from the fitness center, students are still going to hold some classes outside, for example, a yoga class.”
According to President Sandoval, the campus saw 66 positive cases linked through contract tracing to the fitness center since school began.
“In those 66, 30 of them were infectious while they were in the building,” President Sandoval said. “That created a big concern for me that, first of all, the campus has been a hotspot. The statistic that the Washoe County Health Officer gave me was that one out of nine positive cases in Washoe County comes from this campus.”
President Sandoval voiced sympathy for the students who saw the gym as part of the campus experience.
“I will say to your readers that, you know, I’m really sorry,” President Sandoval said. “I know that that was an important part of the campus experience, but at the same time, I have an obligation to protect the health and safety of students, the faculty, the staff, and anyone who comes on this campus, so that wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly, but it was a decision that had to be made.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a Change.org petition entitled “Keep the UNR fitness center OPEN” was started by Sean Merker. As of Friday afternoon, the petition has gathered 4,150 signatures.
In the “Reason for signing” section of the petition, many students voiced concerns about closure, and called the gym a place for students to “get away” and as being important for their mental and physical health.
The Canvas module entitled “Fitness & Recreational Sports – Virtual Drop In Classes,” which was added on Thursday morning to allow students to still access drop-in classes, had a student created discussion post. The post garnered several posts from students about their feelings and concerns about the closure, but the discussion tab was later removed around 2 p.m.
According to Finkler, the gym closing means more than a loss of $45 or not having access to exercise equipment.
“I just want the students to know that everyone was affected by this. Everyone was affected because they don’t have a gym membership anymore, and they just paid $45. But I just want people to realize that this goes beyond just shutting down a gym, this is people’s livelihood here.”
Andrew Mendez contributed to this report.
Olivia Ali and Taylor Avery can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.