Gainesville city workers formed outdoor workout group during pandemic to get daily exercise

A Mortal Kombat soundtrack synchs in harmony with the trickling of water from the Historic Thomas Center as a team of city employees, known as the “Chinch Bugs,” gear up to enjoy their daily workout.

It’s high noon and members of Gainesville’s Department of Sustainable Development (DSD) playfully note that they are taking part in “mandatory development.”

With yoga mats spread in a circle around the fountain, DSD Director Andrew Persons and Planner Juan Castillo guide the group through a series of maneuvers including Romanian deadlifts, jump squats and single-leg hip extensions.

The group over the years has grown and is made up of city planners, inspectors, officers, workers from unrelated departments, retirees and city residents.

“It’s been awesome,” Persons said. “It was something that was born out of the pandemic, out of necessity, but something we’ve all joined in commodity.”

A group of co-workers with the city of Gainesville's Department of Sustainable Development who call themselves the "Chinch Bugs," do their daily lunchtime workout at the Historic Thomas Center, in Gainesville on May 9, 2022.  [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

A group of co-workers with the city of Gainesville’s Department of Sustainable Development who call themselves the “Chinch Bugs,” do their daily lunchtime workout at the Historic Thomas Center, in Gainesville on May 9, 2022. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, shutting down restaurants, large gatherings and gyms, a small team of city workers began exercising outside as part of a daily routine, using cement benches as step-ups.

The name “Chinch Bugs” was developed after a lawn care worker kept trying to fix the grass, thinking bugs were killing the lawn. In reality, it was from the city workers stretching and laying mats down.

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“It’s the best name. I even made T-shirts,” Persons said. “It’s definitely been something that kept us all together through the pandemic.”

While also for fun, the group participates in the city of Gainesville’s Lighten Up program competition, a health and wellness initiative that partners with Pro Club to offer employees and participants incentives and awards for their engagement.

Employee Health Services intern Anahi Vega said the 13-week-long weight loss contest pits employee teams against each other in a race to get fit and lose weight. Teams are made up of teams of five to seven people that are expected to weigh in on a weekly basis. Total loss is calculated to determine the winners.

“Employees get really competitive with this program and that’s what we want to see,” Vega said. “They take accountability and we want to see them pushing each other.”

The Chinch Bugs are the team to beat, as the group has won the competition several years in a row.

It’s the camaraderie though that keeps people going, Persons said.

The city’s development review coordinator, Miranda Searing, said she has been inspired by group workouts.

“Working out with a team is easier than working out alone,” she said.

Even former employees come back to participate in the workout sessions, as do nearby residents who heard of the daily gatherings.

“I found out they were out here so I decided to join them to try to stay healthy,” said Ralph Hilliard, the former city planning manager who retired in 2017.

On occasion, the group will catch the attention of dog walkers and their pets who join in on the fun.

Vega said that once the numbers are crunched and a team is selected, the winner can use the award money to purchase workout gear.

“The last three years they got to spend money on fitness equipment,” she said.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Gainesville city employees, residents come together for daily workouts