Au Revoir, Encore, Chelsea Piers

In which the Complainant recounts her recent history with a revived gym membership, and gives a list of Particulars about why she’s freezing her Chelsea Pier Fitness account, at least for a few months.

A bit over a year ago I rejoined the Chelsea Piers gym. Like the other gyms in the city, CP had been shuttered since mid-March (2020), but now was reopening with limited hours. I badly needed a gym, as I hadn’t had a serious workout or swim or shower bath in six months. (That’s right.)

CP’s monthly fee wasn’t much above what I used to pay, 2006-2014, and moreover I now had an extra $100 a month available because my other gym (NYHRC) had tanked, never to reopen: so I gladly re-upped. I’d checked out other gyms, but no sale. The Equinox at Columbus was convenient to me, with a decent pool and equipment, but its monthly fee was close to $300. This is completely unreasonable . . . unless your company is subsidizing your membership, which I gather is often the case.

I was delighted to discover that my old bar-coded Chelsea Piers ID card from 2006 still worked. All in all, it was a pleasant and longed-for homecoming.

But not perfect. The COVID-19 business had thrown commercial gyms into such a frenzy that when they gradually opened in late 2020 – early 2021, they instituted rigorous, baffling policies that seemed designed to discourage all but the most determined fitness enthusiasts. To take one example, at the New York Sports Clubs not only were the steambath and sauna closed (as at other gyms), but so were the showers, at least till mid-2021. Thereby eliminating a primary reason for joining a gym.

Thankfully at least the showers were available at Chelsea Piers. But there were so many obstacles in getting to the Piers that there were a couple of months when I went only once or twice. Getting there involved a two-subway ride plus a 3/4-mile walk. And then, in order to enter the facilities you had to fill out a daily health disclosure form (online), attesting that you weren’t sick, didn’t have Covid, hadn’t been ill in the past two weeks, etc. etc.

And then, the masking nuisance. Everybody had to wear a facemask. And maintain “social distancing,” keeping six feet away from everyone else. This meant that in a row of treadmills or elliptical machines only every other machine was available for use. You were required to tote around a bottle of green disinfectant and green towel, and wipe down your cardio machines or weights or pulley devices after you used them—or maybe even before. In the lounge, the (very good) coffee/salad/smoothie/sushi bars of yesteryear were closed.

And you were limited to 90-minute sessions, which you had to book, on an online app, before you arrived. This meant in effect that your workout, or workout and swim, or class, had to be squeezed into an hour (because presumably you’re going to be changing clothes and washing up). It also meant you weren’t supposed to hang out in the lounge for hours (as people traditionally did), checking your messages and working on your novel.

Not only did you have to check in when you entered, you had to check out when you left by the side door on the south side of the track. CP was keeping track of how many bodies were onsite. You got an e-mail alert when your 90 minutes were nearly up, and another alert when you ran over your time limit. When I knew I was going overstay by a half hour, I’d go to the red-eye checkout device and show my barcode without leaving. I don’t know of anyone being sanctioned for this kind of monkey business, but the psychological pressure was intense. You had to keep looking at the clock.

Writing this down now, I realize for the first time how awful it all was. But on the upside, these onerous restrictions meant that the Piers were never crowded. There might be only a dozen other members there when you went there early afternoon. You didn’t have to wait for a swim lane or a Concept 2 rower. And this is pretty much what the Chelsea Piers Fitness Center was like from September 2020 to May 2021: a pain in the neck to use, but big, empty, and familiar if not quite friendly.

I’m sure the outfit was running at a steep loss during this period, with only a fraction of its usual customers. So around May 2021 they attempted to liberalize their policies, but just got annoyingly tricksy, changing policies every couple of months.

There would no longer be a blanket demand that everyone wear a facemask. If you claimed to have been vaccinated, you could skip the mask and the daily online health disclosure. In theory you had to have some sort of vaxx card or certificate, but these could be easily forged and no doubt were. In an e-mail circular in May, Chelsea Piers informed us that 95% of their members were already vaccinated: a preposterously high estimate based on no data at all. At least nobody ever asked me.

A couple months later (July) they decided to tighten things up. Members had to register with something called the New York State Excelsior Pass, and display that at least once, whereupon you were emailed a green badge with a checkmark. At this point you could get an Excelsior Pass basically on your own say-so, as Excelsior wasn’t yet tied into any master database of vaxx customers and facilities.

But after some weeks that too changed, and we were required to upgrade our passes to a super-duper enhanced Excelsior Pass, which was linked to a database. I don’t know what happened to CP members who didn’t upgrade their passes, or were rejected by the database because of a technical glitch or because they’d been creative with their vaccination information. But I remember being glad I didn’t forge a vaxx card when so tempted.

This brings us up to August or September 2021. By this point the café bars were partly open and the 90-minute restriction was gone. You didn’t have check out at the red-eye scanner by the side door and walk down the red fire-escape stairs; you just left through the main entrance, the way you came in. Things were almost back to normal. People were hanging out in the lounge again, as in days of yore.

Inconveniences still abounded though. Hours were still abbreviated by comparison with the old days. And the running tracks were gone. They completely removed the banked 200m track to make room for an Astroturf area where they’ll be putting the boxing ring, or something. Meanwhile they tore up the 400m Mondo track for replacement, and took over six months to lay the new one in. Very poor planning. That kind of thing should be done in two weekends.

Incidentally that 400-meter Mondo is not really a 400m track, since the only lanes available are the outer ones—mainly 7 and 8. CP has gradually eaten up the other lanes with  basketball flooring and other facilities. One lap in lane 8 is around 450 meters. Management could have shortened the track at the west turn and made it a true 400 meter track, but that would have required too much imagination.

(Explanation: A regulation athletic track has lanes a bit over 1.2 meters wide. Figure out how many meters there are betwixt Lane 1 and Lane 8, then multiply by 2. That’s your extra diameter, about 17 meters; multiply this by Pi, and see what you get [~53 meters]. Years ago I was in a CP race where I supposedly ran a mile in 7 minutes on the “400” track, only it was really more than a mile-and-an-eighth. I’m surely not trying to impress you with my speed, but this shows how easily fudged are track times when you’re not running a true 400 track.)

Dream on.

Did I mention how app-happy Chelsea Piers has become? In October 2021 they demanded we download yet another app, one that gave us a QR code for our account information, and a scheduling module for lap swims, yoga classes, whatever. We’ve already had the daily health declaration, and the scheduling app from September 2020. Both are now obsolete. I don’t know why they couldn’t just revise the old app and ask us to update.

A bigger question is, what about the folks who don’t have a late-model smartphone or any mobile device at all? It all smells of wrongheaded advice from an outside vendor who’s mainly interested in developing pretty little apps, and has no practical sense or awareness of the end users’ convenience.

I’ve never used the new app except to book swim times. On my last few visits to CP, I just showed the red-eye scanner my barcoded photo ID from 2006. And it works perfectly well. Same account number, same member database. Fuck your QR codes.

To recap, Chelsea Piers Fitness Center has acted like a beloved but neurotic relative ever since reopening in September 2020. They change policies the way some people change their socks. Other gyms reopened with a blanket mask policy, then revised that to a vaxx policy—and left it at that. No more rule changes, no more hassle, no propeller-head toy-phone app with QR code. But Aunt Chelsea is out of control. She just cain’t he’p herse’f.

So I’m freezing my CP membership for a while, to save money and contemplate my gym future. I’ve joined another gym, one that’s within walking distance and costs half of what I’ve been paying CP. It doesn’t have quite the gloss of Chelsea Piers, or such amenities as bathrobes or high-power hair dryers, and its 25m pool doesn’t have quite as many lanes as Chelsea’s. But it’s an intriguing change and attractive facility. It’s dark and neon-ish, like a 1981 dance club or 1991 rave. Lest we doubt this was intentional, they’ve got a pop-art mural of giant red lips with a drug capsule held between. Eccentric, edgy, beguiling.





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