As states continue the process of reopening after being shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, gyms have become a source of healing for many who were unable to work out while quarantining.
“Part of the draw to come to the gym is the social interaction,” Val Holmes, owner of Valley Fitness in Harrisonburg, Virginia, said last week. “Most of the people coming back are super excited.”
While few gyms have been allowed to reopen at full capacity, most owners of facilities noted that the attendance restrictions haven’t really hurt their business — nor has it changed the way they typically operate. Instead, keeping an eye on cleanliness has always been a priority for most businesses before and after the outbreak.
That focus, paired with social distancing practices, have been at the forefront of everybody’s plans as they reopen to the public. Ogden Newspapers spoke with gym owners in 15 states to get a sense of how business has been going, what they are doing to help prevent the spread of the virus, and how happy they are to be back.
In the small town of Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Snap Fitness reopened to its members on June 10.
Owner Barbara Rabitoy said unlike other U.P. businesses that depend on tourism in the summer months, gyms actually experience a decrease in patronage during the summer because people tend to exercise outdoors when the weather is warmer.
Snap Fitness is a 24-hour access gym in which members gain entry through a PIN pad on the door. Members are to sign up in advance for their time slot so the number of people in the gym at once remains low.
“Due to the fact that we are a low membership gym, we stay 10 or less people in here automatically with the 24-hour access,” Rabitoy said. “And I have the ability to count from home, I have the ability to count here at the gym, how many people are in my gym every hour. And it’s staying less than 10.”
Since reopening, Rabitoy has gone through gallons of cleaner, and her disinfecting wipes need to be refilled much more often than prior to the shutdown. Every single machine and hard surface is disinfected prior to and after each person uses the equipment.
“I’ve changed my cleaning product to Virex, a hospital-grade cleaning agent,” Rabitoy said. “I was a nurse at the hospital, and it’s the same exact cleaning agent that we used at the hospital. And it’s the one that was recommended by the CDC through Snap” Fitness USA, the parent company of the franchised fitness centers.
“We got what was recommended, and I put it out for people to wipe the gym equipment down with, and I also wipe the gym equipment myself,” Rabitoy added. “I have notices up that say wipe the gym (equipment) down before and after use … What I do notice is I’m going through gym wipes here much faster than I used to. And I’m refilling my spray bottles every other day.”
She said prior to the shutdown, one spray bottle would last a month.
“I notice with all of this going on, people are being that diligent with wiping their stuff down,” Rabitoy said. “So it’s good as a gym owner to know that people are taking that responsibility upon themselves.”
She said masks are provided upon request, but they are being left as a personal choice because many people find it too hot or difficult to breathe while working out if they are wearing a mask.
Fitness In Motion in Faribault, Minnesota, reopened on June 10. Mike Swanson has owned the gym for 25 years. Under the state’s regulations, the gym has to operate at just 25 percent of maximum capacity until the orders are lifted or changed.
“We aren’t requiring masks because so much of working out, you know, you don’t want to have a whole lot of air restriction,” Swanson said. “We gave away 600 gators, which is like a mask, you can wear it around your neck, you can wear it as a headband, but you also can pull it up like a long turtleneck over your mouth.”
Swanson gave those to members to use in or outside the gym.
“We added a lot more hand disinfectant throughout the facility, and also equipment disinfectant,” he said, noting that he has been going through a lot more of it since reopening.
He said the 24-hour gym is large enough that the capacity has not been an issue yet.
“We are limiting all our members to an hour workout,” he said.
Swanson also said he knows who is in his gym at all times, so if there were ever a question of exposure, he would know who checked in at which times to identify those who may have been exposed. But staying home when you’re feeling ill is strongly urged.
“We do have a lot of signage that says, ‘hey, if you have any of these symptoms, don’t come in,’” Swanson added. “I think most people who work out are pretty health-conscious and in tune with their bodies. If they feel off, they know it.”
He added that getting back into the gym has more than just physical benefits.
“They’re excited,” he said about his members. “It’s beyond just the physical, too — it’s mental. People really needed to get back into the gym, and that little bit of social gathering, too, is important to them.”
Faribault County Fitness Center in Blue Earth, Minnesota, also reopened on June 10. Face masks are encouraged, as well as disinfecting hands and gym equipment. Anyone feeling ill is requested to stay home and not visit the fitness center.
In Maui County, Maui, Hawaii, fitness centers and recreational facilities were allowed to reopen on June 1, according to a press release by Mayor Michael Victorino.
The Club Maui’s two locations opened on June 8, according to owner Danny Crowell. One is in the Outlets of Maui and the other is in Kahana Gateway, both in Lahaina.
“To enter, you have to have your mask, a workout towel, and you have to sanitize your hands,” Crowell said, adding that only members can enter because the business uses a key fob entry system. Those wishing to join the gym would have to call ahead for an appointment.
Crowell said capacity has not been an issue yet, and social distancing has been practiced, as well as disinfecting all the equipment, including new equipment that came in while the gym was closed.
“Right now, everybody is excited,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re coming back to a new gym.”
In Pennsylvania, most of the counties have entered the “green” phase, which allows gyms and fitness centers to open at 50 percent capacity, while maintaining social distancing.
Most gyms have spaced out their equipment, turning off every other cardio machine. They have also reduced hours of operations, to ensure time after hours for the staff to do a thorough sanitization.
Group classes and trainings have also been significantly reduced in size and hours.
In Harrisonburg, Virginia, Val Holmes, the owner of Valley Fitness, said she’s had a steady amount of people returning to work out since she opened last week. People have been eager to get back to the grind, she said.
“It was one of the best days I can remember, being able to reopen,” Holmes said. “I’ve been here since 1983. It’s a very tight-knit community, and it is like family.”
She had to make a lot of changes before she was able to reopen, however, as the state mandated that people be spaced 10 feet apart while exercising indoors.
“We’re a gym — things are not 10 feet apart,” Holmes said. “We had to take quite a bit of equipment out of commission. We tried to stake out our benches so we have as much space as possible. We did the best we could.”
The capacity regulation wasn’t a problem for her, as her gym is in a large building and they can have more than 200 people at one time. That, she said, is important for a gym that draws a lot of people for group fitness classes.
In Florida, gyms have been operating at 50 percent capacity for a few weeks now. Deb McQuillan, manager of Gulf Coast Fitness in Cape Coral, said she just started group classes again last week.
She too had to make adjustments to the space in her gym, to keep people six feet apart. For every cardio machine, two are turned off, she said. They also found new sanitizing products and strategies to keep the equipment clean.
“I had to put X’s all over the floor to keep social distancing,” McQuillan said.
Many of her gym members are seniors, she said, who are “very happy” to be back getting exercise.
“We are a smaller community,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody here.”
At the YMCA-YWCA in Marshalltown, Iowa, CEO Carol Hibbs said gym-goers have been increasingly returning since reopening on May 18.
“I can tell you the first week we were at about 30 percent of what was normal for last year,” Hibbs said Wednesday. “We are now between 50 and 55 percent.”
Gyms in Iowa were allowed to reopen on May 15 per a proclamation from Governor Kim Reynolds.
The Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA is currently in its second phase of reopening. Policies include equipment being limited to every other machine, members cleaning machines before and after each use and members being required to sign a waiver, among other things.
Hibbs said that the YMCA-YWCA in Marshalltown opted to have members sign a waiver, whereas other YMCAs across the country are conducting screening questions and taking temperatures before letting people in. The waiver tells signees they must acknowledge the contagious nature of COVID-19 and voluntarily assume the risk of contracting the disease. The waiver also ensures that gym-goers cannot sue the Marshalltown YMCA on the basis of any claim of negligence.
Members are complying to guidelines, Hibbs said, and the gym is welcoming back a mix of clientele of different ages.
The first day they reopened, for example, Hibbs said a 95-year-old member came in. She was anxious to come back because she hadn’t seen her family in two months, Hibbs said. She needed some social interaction and spent her time walking along the track.
In Ogden, Utah, at the Front Climbing Club, events coordinator Brenna King said she thinks maintaining cleanliness at a rock climbing gym can be difficult, but that climbers have been good about following guidelines.
Temperatures are checked outside the door and participants are asked to wash their hands before and after climbing. Participants must also keep a minimum distance of 10 feet from others while climbing and they are also encouraged to use liquid chalk, which contains alcohol.
King said staff is unable to sanitize the belays because the material could disintegrate. Staff is also unable to sanitize all the holds on the rock climbing walls due to the amount of holds and constant touching of holds by climbers.
On Monday, the Front Climbing Club opened to the public. Prior to that, it had only allowed members to use the facilities. King said that since opening to the public on Monday, the gym has been seeing a similar level of clients to what they saw prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gyms in Utah were allowed to reopen on May 1 per an announcement from Governor Gary Herbert.
In Lawrence, Kansas, the parking lot outside Crunch Fitness was crowded Tuesday afternoon, and multiple gym-goers coming in and out of the facility said they have felt comfortable returning. Crunch Fitness reopened on May 20, two days after gyms were allowed to reopen in Kansas.
Doug Lewry, who was entering the gym Tuesday afternoon, said he feels more comfortable going to Crunch Fitness than he would to a restaurant in town or a smaller gym — spaces he feels would be more confined than the large workout facility. Lewry noted that machines are spaced six feet apart, including benches, which he said have been bolted down. He also said staff has been doing a good job cleaning.
“I see people walk around constantly,” Lewry said of staff members who are cleaning equipment and other parts of the facility.
JT Hamilton Slate, a manager at Crunch Fitness, said employees take clients’ temperatures at the front door and that clients are expected to wipe down machines before and after use. Other procedures include social distancing signs and stickers around the gym, marking off machines or pushing machines six feet apart and closing the locker rooms, saunas and showers.
Hamilton Slate said they have been seeing pretty typical check-in numbers except during the weekend, when they have been down. He also noted that they’ve been seeing a lot of people sign up for memberships, which he was not expecting.
Aundre Allen was breathing heavily after leaving the gym Tuesday afternoon. He said he had been going to Crunch Fitness for the past few weeks. It’s not just the staff that are taking cleaning measures seriously, Allen said, but other clients as well. It’s one of the reasons he feels comfortable returning to the gym.
In New Hampshire, gyms are just beginning to reopen to the public and the owners of Gateway Hills Health Club in Nashua are ready to see people returning.
“Our phones are pretty busy with people looking forward to coming back,” owner Matt Dispensa said. “Even despite all the protocols put in place, I think people are still afraid of COVID-19. I think it’s going to be a long time before we see normal traffic again.”
He said when the closures initially came it was very challenging for business.
“We had no revenue coming in and had to layoff all our employees,” he said. “We’ll survive, we’ll be fine. I don’t think a lot of (other) businesses are able to survive being three months out.”
Dispensa said his fitness center is a “higher-end health club” and his business already had a higher level of cleaning protocols before the coronavirus.
“Our cleaning protocols and things like that haven’t changed that much,” he said. “We’ve always put cleaning and sanitization as a priority in our club. We basically spread out all of our equipment to six feet apart.”
He said the biggest change to the club is that they will not be able to operate 24 hours a day.
“Our hours have changed slightly just because of the fact that we have to be staffed to monitor for social distancing and making sure people are cleaning down equipment,” he said. “We’ve always had small group training, so that didn’t really change our business too much. They used to be 10 to 12 people, now they’re going to be eight people (in a class).”
Dispensa said he hopes the public understands the new rules and that things will be different.
“It’s not the way that we would have chosen to run our business but now because of these new rules and protocols that are put in place, the new normal is going to be different,” he said. “It’s not necessarily what either of us would have chosen, but we all have to work together to make it work.”
For MOVement Fitness and Rec Center in Marietta, Ohio, many of those returning have stopped to say how much they missed the facility. The 65,000 square foot retail space was renovated by Brant Whited and his wife three years ago and turned into a fitness facility, with a soccer field and CrossFit.
“We wanted to try to revitalize part of our home town and give it something unique to where the members of that community can be proud of it,” Whited said. “It’s a long difficult road trying to get that process under way, renovating that whole building, but we got it done. So shutting down was really tough for us, of course from a business aspect, but just personally because we’ve been so tied up in this over the past three years.”
After experiencing a “tough few months,” he started figuring out what reopening would look like and what changes and improvements would have to be made. When they did reopen MOVement, Whited wanted it to be “the best for our community and our members,” while making sure everyone was comfortable.
Whited said the fitness center has even picked up new members since reopening.
“We actually have one of those electrostatic sanitizing guns which I was fortunate to buy,” he said. “We’ve kind of ramped up using that and spread out some equipment. We’ve had pretty much all positive feedback.”
He said if nothing else, he hopes the pandemic helps stress the importance of physical health and fitness for the body as a whole.
“I couldn’t be more happy and proud with our members and our staff, how they’ve embraced everything,” Whited said.
The Minor Family YMCA closed its doors earlier than most gyms in North Dakota. Once schools closed, the YMCA closed a week before it was mandated to by the state.
Tia Klein, the director of program services, said the YMCA caught up on maintenance and focused on deep cleaning.
“We went through and sanitized everything from floor to ceiling and then got a lot of painting done, did some remodeling,” she said. “We did a lot of programming for our youth, we did promotions on how to stay healthy, how to stay fit, exercise solutions at home. We also did live updates of what we were doing and what to expect coming back.”
On the first day back, the YMCA opened the training center with cardio and weight equipment and the indoor track. Every other machine was open to maintain social distancing. Klein said the YMCA has seen more people come in the longer they’ve been open, but she has noticed people are still fearful of COVID-19.
“We canceled one of our biggest programs of the year, which is a resident camp,” she said. “That was hard for us to do but just for the safety of our campers (it was necessary). We gave credits and refunds for programs that may have been canceled or they can come back next year and use what they paid for this year.”
Klein said others have wanted to donate their fees because the YMCA is a nonprofit and runs off of donations.
“We’re not running full capacity quite yet, but we’re pretty close,” she said. “We haven’t opened our daycare yet and we haven’t allowed the use of water fountains. Other than that, we’re pretty much back to normal.”
She said members have been happy to see their friends again and have meaningful conversations.
“A lot of people have missed that connection that they had with people and coming back, you can just see they’re happy we’re open,” Klein said. “Not everything is quite open back to normal yet, but they were just grateful to be back with their friends.”
In February, Rachel Phillips and Rachel Paynter took over 1201 Crossfit in Elkins after serving as volunteer coaches there.
“After being owners for a month, we closed our business,” Phillips said.
They made the call the day before Gov. Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order that closed gyms and other businesses around the state in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But they didn’t stop helping their members work toward fitness and nutrition goals.
Members were given certain pieces of equipment to use at home. Three classes were offered daily using the online conferencing app Zoom, and videos of classes were uploaded to YouTube for folks who couldn’t join in live.
The new owners had been working to set up an online apparel store, and the shutdown gave them a chance to move that along.
With continued payments from members still enjoying the benefit of their services, albeit in a different way, “we didn’t take a hit financially,” Phillips said. “It was a scary time, but 1201’s an amazing community.”
The business had been family owned and run with the help of volunteer coaches, so the new owners had no workers to furlough.
“We at that point hadn’t even taken on staff so we didn’t have to make those decisions, thankfully,” Phillips said.
Justice gave the go-ahead for gyms to reopen on May 18, with requirements that include limiting occupancy to 40 percent, implementing social-distancing guidelines, employees and customers wearing face coverings and checking temperatures for staff and patrons entering the facility.
Class sizes were cut to eight people, although some have recently been raised to 10, Phillips said. The durations were shortened to allow time to sanitize rooms in between and reduce inter-mingling of participants.
Each member is given their own bottle of disinfectant and cleaning towel when they come in, Phillips said.
“Our community has been used to always cleaning up after themselves,” she said. “We had that standard all along.”
Customers were inquiring when the gym would be able to reopen, Phillips said.
“We’ve had amazing attendance. We’ve had old members … come back,” she said.
Gyms in Maryland got the green light to reopen Friday, operating at 50 percent capacity with social-distancing guidelines in place and facial coverings required.
Customers are ready to return, said Danny Farrar, founder and CEO of Soldierfit, which has eight locations in Maryland, some owned by the company, others by franchisees. The Frederick location began offering outdoor boot camps on May 18.
“Coming back out of this … at my five corporate-owned gyms in Maryland, we’re doing as good if not better with new member sign-ups than prior to COVID,” Farrar said.
The company began work on an online training platform in December.
“We were able to pivot and have resources available for our clients day one of the shutdown,” Farrar said.
While nothing will completely supplant the appeal of going to a gym and working out with others, “I do personally believe that a gym cannot survive post-COVID without an online training option,” he said.
OneLife Fitness has seven locations in Maryland, two of them in Frederick. Senior Vice President Nancy Terry said the company has been offering 40 classes a week on Facebook Live while closed, along with on-demand content at onelifeanywhere.com.
“We know exercise is essential to boosting your immune system and reducing your stress that was happening during quarantine,” she said.
Online access is free to members. Memberships were frozen during the closure and will be kept that way until patrons feel safe returning, Terry said, but that created a financial strain.
“We did furlough most of our employees during the time, but we’re bringing them all back now,” she said.
Soldierfit allowed members to freeze their accounts, although most continued paying as they were receiving services online or attending the outdoor activities, Farrar said.
“We took a sizable enough hit,” he said. “We got rid of some of the entry-level positions” like front-desk clerks.
Both Soldierfit and OneLife were adjusting policies and facilities last week to prepare to reopen.
“We have separated the equipment. We have turned off every other machine,” Terry said. “We’re set up just like the grocery stores. There’s arrows on the floor to guide you safely … in the right direction.”
In addition to training staff to thoroughly clean equipment with medical-grade disinfectant, OneLife has installed AirPHX air- and surface-sanitizing devices at its locations, she said.
Soldierfit is increasing its already high cleanliness standards, Farrar said.
“It is safe to come in,” he said.
Jarrod Johnson’s mostly one-on-one operation of Go For It Fitness and Personal Training in Gloversville has been closed – along with every other fitness center in the Empire State – since March 16.
“I was progressing into having some group exercise stuff, some small groups, but things have kind of been on hold,” he said.
Johnson and other New York fitness center owners are awaiting word on when they’ll be allowed to resume operations. Seven of the 10 designated regions in the state have entered Phase Three of the New York Forward reopening plan, but gyms and fitness centers remain limited to streaming classes online.
“The situation … is difficult enough,” Johnson said. “And then the uncertainty of everything has really – how do I want to put this – has really put a damper on my livelihood.”
Johnson said his application for a Paycheck Protection Program loan was not accepted. He’s been living off of savings and credit, “doing whatever I can to get by,” he said.
But he remains optimistic about the future of his business.
“I’ve been down in the past, and nothing has been able to keep me from moving forward with this,” Johnson said.
The closure has given him a chance to take some time for himself and make positive changes as to how he’ll run his business when it does reopen.
“There’ll be some other people involved when I go back,” Johnson said.
As a fitness operation without large classes, Johnson expects to be able to get back to work without too much adjustment. And he said private facilities were rising in popularity before the pandemic, which may leave some people wary of locations where a lot of folks are going in and out even when they’re given the all-clear.
“There’s a large percentage of people who prefer not to go to a large gym,” Johnson said.
News Lifestyles Editor Darby Hinkley contributed to this story.
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