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Fighting to survive: how local martial arts centers are navigating new mitigations in both Iowa and Illinois

Two local martial arts instructors tell News 8 that these mitigations might cost them their businesses, students, livelihoods and traditions.

MOLINE, Ill. — Local martial arts academies say the latest round of mitigations, both in Iowa and Illinois, are making a tough year even more difficult. 

However, many owners have expressed frustration at the lack of clarity for which guidelines they are to follow, since they say martial arts centers, classes, and lessons operate in a gray zone somewhere between a gym and an organized sport. 

Beginning Friday, Nov. 20, all of Illinois is moving to Tier 3 mitigations. For gyms, as well as health and fitness centers, those restrictions include: 

  • Operating at 25% capacity or less 
  • No indoor group classes 
  • Masks are required at all times, including while exercising 
  • Reservations are required 
  • Locker room areas should be closed 

For organized group recreational activities - which includes both indoor and outdoor sports, as well as activity facilities - Tier 3 restrictions are: 

  • All youth and adult group sporting and recreational activities (including park districts and travel leagues) must be paused, although individual training may remain
  • Outdoor sports and recreation is allowed 
  • Any outdoor groups and practices must be limited to 10 people or less, and all must be social distancing 
  • Masks are required at all times 
  • Lock rooms should be closed 

On the Iowa side, new mitigation efforts took effect at midnight on Tuesday, Nov. 17. While fitness centers and gyms may remain open, they are required to comply with the following stipulations: 

  • All equipment should be spaced at least six feet apart
  • All group activities and classes must ensure participants are socially distanced; class sizes must be reduced if not everyone can gather together while remaining social distant
  • Employees must remain socially distant 
  • There should be increased hygiene practices

However, just like the other side of the river, Iowa has a different set of regulations for sporting and recreational gatherings (excluding high school, collegiate or professional sports):

  • All participants, including athletes, coaches and instructors, must keep six feet of distance between each other at all times
  • Activities where closer contact is unavoidable, such as basketball or wrestling, are prohibited 
  • There can be no more than two spectators per participating athlete 
  • Masks are required for everyone except athletes participating in said gathering 

To Chris Kellner, owner of Ving Tsun Martial Art Association in Davenport, his business doesn't fit into any of the aforementioned categories. 

"That was a big thing for us, looking at fitness centers and non-fitness centers," said Kellner. "A kung fu school is a kung fu school." Instead, he says students come to learn and to train, both mentally and physically. In that way, it's different from a regular gym, and outside of the classification of a regulated sport. 

RELATED: Iowa business owners anticipate some challenges as new mask mandate, mitigation efforts begin

The Rock Island County Health Department said they would consider any karate or martial arts center to be organized group recreation. The Scott County Health Department said they would have to defer to the office of Governor Kim Reynolds, who has yet to return our request for clarification. 

The style of kung fu that Kellner teaches is known as Ving Tsun, and it's one of only a handful of similar schools in the country. Lessons are passed down from one instructor to the next, and Kellner has pictures of his own teacher, as well as his teacher's teacher. 

"Kung fu is passed down from generation to generation. You have to have students in order to teach. It's about passing down my sifu's teachings," he said. "When no one's around... you can't pass it on to anybody." 

It's that fear, he says, that has been a driving factor in keeping his garage-turned-school open since the beginning of the pandemic; if he were to stop, all of his knowledge and training would be lost. 

Ving Tsun kung fu is a very direct and personalized system, where students learn hands-on and face-to-face. Kellner says since the first round of shutdowns in March, he's made plenty of adjustments in order to safely maintain that particular style. 

"We've changed some of our classes around - both the times and what hours students come in. All of us are constantly sanitizing. We've also been doing lots of Zoom classes," he said. Classes that used to be filled with 25-30 students, now only hold about 10 at a time. "Right now it's a lot of fundamental, foundation techniques, since we can't practice with each other as much. We have wooden dummies throughout the entire school as well." 

He did note that zoom classes weren't his preferred method of teaching, since it's much harder to correct techniques in real-time, as well as keeping student energy high. 

Credit: Ving Tsun Martial Art Association
Practicing kung fu in a Covid-19 world, inside Chris Kellner's garage.

Even with all of the changes, he said business has taken a significant dip since March. 

"It's the main support to feed my family. It's hard. Every month you just do everything you have to do, to get by," he said.

Across the river, in Moline, John Morrow agreed. 

"It was really bleak in April and May. It's very hard - I do this for a living," said Morrow, owner of Morrow's Academy of Martial Arts, which was forced to close in the early months of the pandemic. "It's very hard to make a living right now. Everyone's struggling along. Obviously the income goes down, but you just gotta keep going." 

He says he'll try to do as many outdoor classes, individual lessons, and zoom demonstrations as he can, but he also needs to continue teaching small groups indoors. Otherwise, he says he'll be out of business. 

"It's a choice. I can choose to close down and lose my life and wellbeing," he said. "No matter what you do, you're gonna have trouble and problems, but everyone needs to do the best they can to survive and be safe." 

To Morrow, the coronavirus presents a very real risk to people. But he believes there's also a very real risk presented by danger and violence on the streets. He says he needs to do everything he can to prepare his students to protect themselves in every situation. 

That's why he views staying open, and continuing with in-person classes, to be more important than every before - both for the financial aspect, but also for the physical and mental wellbeing of his students. 

RELATED: A Moline gym says they won't be following the Illinois mitigation guidelines

"I consider martial arts essential. Of course it's essential to me, but it's also essential to the people who come here," he explained. "It's something they look forward to, and something to get in shape; it's something that helps keep them safe." 

Kellner agreed, saying that with all of the good and the bad and the stressful times that so many of his students are trying to navigate right now, practicing has become vital.

"That's what training Kung Fu is, is to, ultimately is to make your life better," said Kellner. "It's not just punching and kicking and doing stuff. It's about changing how you are as a person on the inside." 

While he says he understands how tough the United States' enormous loss of life has been, he also believes the life method for all Quad Cities martial arts studios has been to do what needs to be done to survive. And he says that each center is also doing everything they can to keep their students safe. 

Morrow reminisced on an old promise he made back when he began his school 42 years ago, by saying, "I was ignorant of business, and I didn't know a lot. But I knew one thing: I would succeed. So I know one thing now: I'll survive."