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Illustration by Koji Yamamoto
Health

The Gym As You Know It Is a Thing of the Past

Goodbye, packed workout classes. Goodbye, independent yoga studios.
May 13, 2020, 2:37pm

On April 30, just a few days after Georgia started allowing businesses to reopen, Dakota, a 27-year-old resident of Kingsfield, went to his gym, a community rec center in the southeastern part of the state. It was a Thursday around 2:30pm, so the place wasn’t going to be busy, but on that day, it was especially quiet—and things were different.

Before he could go, Dakota had to call and make an appointment, because the facility was only allowing a few people in at a time. Once he got there, he was asked to wash his hands, and then a staffer took his temperature and handed him a bottle of sanitizing spray, reminding him of the newly implemented cap on working out, one hour. The changes didn’t deter him. “The day the gym opened, I was here immediately,” he said. “During the usual busy times there can be a vacant feeling, but the usual gym rats that are always here are still here.”

That same week, in Augusta, Georgia, Dariane went to the gym, too. At her gym, there were no temperature checks, no need to make an appointment, and a full facility. At times there were so many people that keeping a distance was a challenge. “When I go at night it’s more crowded, so it’s really hard to do,” she said. But other than the signs that the gym has put up reminding attendees to clean equipment, at this facility, one might not realize that they are working out in a post-lockdown world. “No one wears masks—if you go to the gym you wouldn’t even think there’s a pandemic going on,” she said.

After weeks of closures, states like Georgia, North Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee recently gave fitness facilities the green light to open their doors, with varying new rules (and varying degrees of enforcing them). But all were hungry for business. Since shuttering two months ago, gyms and boutique fitness studios have taken a huge financial hit, losing $2.8 billion in revenue in total, according to IHRSA, a gym trade group that has lobbied hard to get fitness facilities included in Phase 1 of the federal government’s reopening plan. Earlier this month, Gold’s Gym filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and Planet Fitness reported a 67 percent drop in net income.

Re-opened workout facilities in these states will give us a peek into the future and some answers about what post-lockdown exercise will look like, after we emerge from our homes. But while gyms and studios are hoping that their new, state-approved protocols—social distancing requirements, elaborate disinfecting schedules, enforcing masks—will ease uncertainty and attract members back, scientists worry that some of these strategies may not be effective enough at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus. While it’s hard to say for sure, especially given that information and guidelines are ever-changing, working out, at least for the foreseeable future, will look very different from what it used to.

For one, the era of “drop-in” workouts may be over. Equinox members, to take one example, will be required to book gym time via the Equinox app. Right now, that’s limited to three 90-minute slots in a seven-day period, potentially more based on capacity. Crunch is considering a similar reservation system and asking attendees to limit exercise to one hour, according to executives from both companies. Crowding might be a thing of the past, too, since social distancing rules will require gyms and studios to cut capacity at all times. States have varying limits on how many people can work out at a time: In Alabama and parts of Iowa, gyms must operate at 50 percent capacity, while in Texas it’s 25 percent. While that’s a welcome change for personal space—lurking around equipment waiting for someone to finish will not be missed—the new caps could result in waitlists for popular classes or time slots, or mean that you’ll have to consider working out at “off-peak” times more often.

Many facilities are also tightening their rules around group fitness classes. “When you do a group fitness class, you'll be assigned a number, and that number corresponds to a grid in the room, which will all be six feet apart from each other,” said Jim Rowley, the CEO of Crunch. “You'll work out in that grid, and then you'll clean up in that grid as well afterwards.” So far, eight of Crunch’s franchise gyms have reopened in Oklahoma and Georgia.

Yes, expect to be responsible for a bit more wiping. Before the pandemic, trainers at many studios, including Solidcore, handed attendees disinfecting towelettes to wipe down machines after class. Now, exercisers will be doing that before, too, said CEO Anne Mahlum, a move she hopes will help clients feel more comfortable. “That way you’re not worrying about if someone missed a spot before you get on the machine.” Solidcore also has studios in Georgia, and at press time, they’re still closed, but their North Dakota locations opened on May 9.

Simply wiping things down with disinfectant will not be enough to zap germs.

Masks will likely be a part of our workout uniform, too, depending on state rules. Equinox and Crunch members will be required to wear them, as will Solidcore’s coaches, but if your state or studio doesn’t enforce it, fellow exercisers might choose to forgo them. Georgia’s reopening guidelines say that people are “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings, but doesn’t mandate them.

The fact that masks aren’t required is concerning to some experts. “Masks don’t give 100 percent protection but they do prevent someone who is asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic from transmitting as much of the virus [to other people],” said Sara Keller, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. But she thinks that masks will be too difficult for people to use in a gym setting, since they tend to shift around and it’s difficult to breathe in one in an idle state, let alone while panting on a treadmill—people may just skip them out of convenience. Three Georgia residents who have been back to the gym told VICE that no one, not employees or attendees, was wearing masks at their facilities.

The temperature checks bring up doubts for experts, too. “We know that it’s possible not to have a high temperature but still be infected and be able to pass COVID-19 along,” said Marilyn Roberts, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, who adds that people might not always be honest when it comes to disclosing symptoms and contact because they’ll want to work out.

She’s also concerned that simply wiping things down with disinfectant will not be enough to zap germs. Wipes can’t penetrate a microscopic layer of organic material like sweat, saliva, and dirt that may be on top of virus particles—that can only be done with soap and water. A proper clean in Roberts’ mind would include soap and water first, then a disinfectant. “But who’s going to want to do that?” she asked.

Fitness facilities might not be able to keep tabs on the new protocols, especially if a loss of revenue means a trimmed-down staff.

Health experts worry that people won’t stick to some of the prescribed necessary practices like distancing, wiping down surfaces and wearing masks properly for the long run. “Many things are easy when you first start, but as time goes on they get hard. Social distancing is going to be especially hard over time,” Keller said. Roberts thinks that being six feet away should be OK in a gym setting, if people are wearing masks, but she wouldn’t want to see more than 10 people in a room together, at least until we know more about how the virus spreads. And with all the new protocols, fitness facilities might not be able to keep tabs on everything, especially if a loss of revenue means a trimmed down staff.

The lack of masks coupled with difficulty distancing will make it much easier for the virus that causes COVID-19 to spread, Roberts said. “I would hate to see gyms become hot spots for infection,” she said. Keller added that gyms should remain closed until states are able to do adequate testing and have stable supplies of personal protective equipment and cleaning products for healthcare workers first, before it’s used at gyms.

While gym-goers will be adjusting to limited schedules, new gear, and more cleaning, the economic challenges faced by many fitness businesses might mean even more changes to the workout experience. After weeks or months of lost revenue, some gyms and studios might hike up their prices to generate more cash and make up for fewer clients due to distancing measures.

“Whether or not prices change will depend on the demand,” said Tim Derdenger, associate professor of marketing and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. “If studios have to cut down on the number of students to maintain social distancing, but the demand for classes is still high, they could charge more.” But he cautions that that will only work if people are willing to come and able to spend extra money—during a recession. Budget gyms, whose dues are typically $20 or less, might have a hard time upping prices, since their model is all about low price and high value, said Graham Melstrand, executive vice president of engagement at the American Council of Exercise. Instead, they’ll likely consider cutting staff and amenities to make ends meet.

Some places might ditch group fitness for individual lessons until distancing rules ease, something that will make working out in person more cost-prohibitive. Seth Redelheim, a tennis instructor at a country club near Atlanta, said he’s only been able to do one-on-one lessons, which are about $45 more expensive per hour than his group classes, because of distancing rules. While the prices haven’t been an issue for his clientele, he wonders if some people will move away from paid play once free and community courts start to open up.

“I don’t think I am going to open if people have to practice with a mask,” one yoga studio owner said.

To offset costs, studios and gyms that do manage to open will likely become more barebones; expect to see many forgo “staples” like yoga mats, high-end shower products, and personal care goods like hair ties, tampons, and ear plugs. Tamara Behar, co-owner of Tangerine Yoga in Brooklyn, speculated that if she’s not able to renegotiate certain amenities, like the cost of laundry and water, she might stop providing towels and beverages, and expects other studios will do the same. “I think people will have to be prepared to come in, work out, and leave,” she said. At least in the beginning, she thinks she’ll stop her free mat policy and ask clients to bring their own, to reduce contact and cleaning.

Even when fitness facilities are allowed to open, owners aren’t sure if people will want to come back quickly or if distancing or other measures, like wearing masks, will incline them to stay home. “I don’t think I am going to open if people have to practice with a mask,” Behar said. “I just don’t think people will want to come if they have to wear a mask. You could just do yoga at home.”

The unfortunate reality is that even with cost-cutting measures, many gyms and studios will be forced to shutter for good. Derdenger thinks that businesses that were already struggling or those that don’t see clients return will have to at least close locations that are less in-demand. “I think up to 50 percent of gyms and boutique fitness studios won’t make it,” projected Mike Patton, founder of the Yoga Vida studios in New York City. Patton and others that VICE spoke with haven’t been able to get the PPP loans that the federal government has offered small businesses, meanwhile their costs are still piling up. “I owe like, $15,000 bucks in insurance, meanwhile I don’t have anyone coming into my studio and my revenue is down 95 percent,” he said.

Derdenger added that gyms and studios that have additional funding, like venture capital and private equity, will be able to endure better. Those without, like Patton, are trying to be optimistic but not delusional. “This whole thing has been an emotional rollercoaster,” Patton said. “Some days I think we’re going to be OK and the future will be bright. But if things don’t change, if our landlords don’t work with us to renegotiate rent or we don’t get small business relief, the only certainty is bankruptcy.”