Gyms were recently included in the first phase of the U.S. President's guidelines for reopening the country, thanks to heavy industry lobbying efforts by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, is it safe to re-open?
As some states lift stay-at-home orders and allow some non-essential businesses to begin serving customers, questions remain about how – and whether – people can actually workout together in the midst of a pandemic.
The novel coronavirus is known to be highly contagious, spread mostly through droplets. Inside a gym or yoga studio where people are sweating, breathing hard and potentially sharing equipment, lockers and showers, can you assure your customers’ health and safety?
It’s a tough call when your business is on the line. And we know that many of you are struggling to stay afloat, and wondering how long you can hang on. Offering online classes through programs like Punchpass’ live Zoom integration and content library can go a long way towards keeping you connected to your community. But ultimately, there will come a day when you’ll weigh how - and perhaps whether - to open again.
“There's only so much a video screen can do for you, regardless of who is hosting the session,” said Christian Koshaba, founder and owner at Three60Fit gym, located in the Chicago Suburbs. “For myself and other boutique gyms, I know my clients are itching to get back to it and can't wait to be back in the gym.”
“I have phased into online training via Zoom and I can see a hybrid market happening,” Koshaba added. “Those who enjoy the comfort and convenience of their own home will opt for the virtual fitness platform and occasionally drop in for classes or a personal training session, while a majority truly strive for the in-person connection with everyone.”
Meanwhile, experts caution against moving too quickly to open the doors.
Gavis Harris, MD, infectious diseases physician and critical care medicine fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recently told Health magazine that returning to gyms at this time could be dangerous.
“From a biologic and physiologic perspective, it’s a bad idea,” he says, citing that the novel coronavirus is spread via droplets, so people in gyms can easily spread it this way. He adds that the virus can also potentially last on shared surfaces for days. “Couple that with an enclosed space, the risk of exposure is exceptionally high,” he says.
“Gyms are well-known for being a place where germs, bacteria, and large groups of people gather, so it makes sense to err on the side of caution and keep them closed until safety is reasonably certain,” said Dan Chojnacki, a Wisconsin-based personal trainer and fitness writer for the insurance comparison site, QuickQuote.com.
Continuing to offer and promote online classes is the best bet for staying afloat until it’s clear that people can gather safely again in person, he said.
“Whether or not these facilities can survive with online classes and virtual training is dependent on the individual business, but there is little argument that these methods give the best chance to stay afloat.”
But more than a month into forced closure, many smaller fitness businesses are questioning whether online classes alone will be enough to help them hang on.
For many gyms and studios, only a small percentage of former customers are participating in online programming. And many have heavily discounted their sessions or begun offering them for free to keep attendance up.
“My studio is definitely at a crossroads and it admittedly does feel a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic at this point so it's tough to get motivated to put in the time learning and establishing new systems,” a yoga studio owner in Australia told us.
“When we've done all of the advertising, discounted our rates and let people know how easy it is (to join an online class) but people still aren't showing up you do have to wonder what happens next,” she said. “We're going to try offering some free sessions and also making the class recordings available to see if that helps but beyond that it doesn't feel like there's much else we can do.”
As some fitness businesses look to re-open their physical locations, the trend seems to be planning for private or very small group sessions with protective gear, social distancing and rigorous sanitation measures.
Steven Mack, owner of Simple Solutions Fitness in Columbia, MO, has adopted a hybrid approach. He’s coaching some of his most loyal clients virtually, while allowing others to come in to his facility for one-on-one sessions. He estimates that his business can make it about three more months using this approach.
“My greatest fear at this moment is how affected my local economy will be – the University of Missouri touches many of the lives of people in Columbia, and their finances,” he said.
“My first priority is the health and safety of my clients. When they feel comfortable coming in, I am allowing them to do so,” said Mack. “It's been a bit lost in all of this, but a number of clients and myself included get a lot of mental benefit from exercise and social interaction. Someone much more intelligent and versed in this matter should be making this decision (about when to re-open), but I'll let my clients take the lead on when they each want to return.”
At The Strength Code, a boutique private personal training studio in Los Angeles, CA, owner Sheila Melody says about 20 percent of clientele have been continuing with online training. The studio is hopeful that members will continue with the virtual sessions into the future. As the gym looks to re-open, private sessions, distancing and cleanliness are paramount.
The studio’s “strength training has always been one-on-one appointment based training” said Melody. “We feel we have a unique opportunity when we are able to reopen our studio, because we are not a typical gym. Prior to the shutdown, we would have up to three clients, each with their own trainers, in the studio at one time. But when we reopen, we plan to start with just one client/one trainer in our studio at a time.”
“That way, we can completely control the cleanliness of our studio by sanitizing all the equipment and anything touched by us or clients in between each workout. We plan to have both parties wear masks and gloves during each workout and wash hands in our facility’s sink before and after each workout. We can set up the equipment, stand away and guide them through the workout,” she said.
Amid the uncertainty, there’s one thing studio owners agree on.
Said Koshaba: “This pandemic will change the landscape of the fitness industry, that much is for sure.”