As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift, How Ready Are Gyms To Reopen?

Owners try to balance state and medical guidance on face masks in the fitness studio; some let customers decide. ‘The most frustrating thing is that there are no strict guidelines’. As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift, How Ready Are Gyms To Reopen?


As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift, How Ready Are Gyms to Reopen?

New Company Safety Protocols Require Instructors To Wear A Mask And Goggles At Orangetheory Fitness Bearden In Knoxville, Tenn., Since It Reopened.


Gravity Fitness in downtown Atlanta reopened May 11. Following new state protocols, a staffer at the gym’s entrance takes everyone’s temperature, and 6-foot spacing marks the gym floor, among other measures aimed at reducing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

It didn’t take long, however, for gym owner Aaron Pols to realize Georgia’s regulations were insufficient. For starters, they seemed to require face masks for gym employees, but left them optional for customers.

“We have a lot of older members in their 50s and up, and they really didn’t feel comfortable without everybody wearing a mask,” Mr. Pols says. A few members who work for the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also voiced concerns, he said. “Enough people spoke up that we needed to do something.”

So he made a new rule on the fly: Starting today, the gym will set aside a four-hour period, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., when face masks will be required for everyone. “So people know what to expect,” he says. In its first week back in action, Gravity’s daily traffic was about half its usual 200 visitors a day.

Several states began easing some restrictions in recent weeks to boost local economies—or at least slow their decline—amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee were among a handful of states to include gyms in the first wave of business reopenings. Safety protocols are set at the state and local level, creating a patchwork of regulations and uncertainty.

“The most frustrating thing is that there are no strict guidelines,” Mr. Pols says. “They’re basically leaving it to the business owners, and unless you have a public health degree you don’t know what to do.”

The CDC has five local fitness centers for employees, and all remain closed. The agency follows federal rather than state guidelines, a spokesman said.


As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift, How Ready Are Gyms to Reopen?

A Staffer Does A Temperature Check, Right, As A Gym Member Takes A Spray Bottle Of Disinfectant, Left, Before A Workout Session At Gravity Fitness In Atlanta.


Gym-goers should be cautious about huffing and puffing in proximity to others indoors, says David Thomas, director of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “I would want the person working out next to me to be wearing a mask,” he said. “We now understand that the degree of expiration, which is how hard you’re forcing air out of your mouth—to sing or shout or exhale—is a major factor in the amount of particles that get forced out of your lungs.”

Dr. Thomas suggests people weigh the risks before going to a gym. “If you’re someone who has to touch every machine in the place, that’s a much bigger risk than the person who wipes down the one machine that they use, stays away from other people and gets in and out with minimal exposure,” he says.

Despite the virus’s continued spread, some people are eager to get back to the gym. Denise Rowe, who runs a carpet-cleaning business with her husband in Knoxville, Tenn., used to visit Orangetheory Fitness Bearden five days a week until the gym closed in mid-March. Since its reopening on May 7, the 47-year-old has gone every other day. “You might want to ask my husband, but I can tell you that my mood is 100% better since I’ve been going back,” Ms. Rowe says.

The state recommends customers undergo a temperature check and a series of wellness questions. The studio cut class sizes in half, to 14 people, which allows for two empty rowing machines or treadmills between students, and changed class format so no one shares equipment, says Kelsey Forsythe, Orangetheory Bearden’s studio manager. Staff members do a deep clean of all equipment before and after classes. Lockers and showers are closed. The touchless water fountain is open; members need to bring their own water bottle.

Orangetheory’s corporate guidelines for face coverings are more strict than Tennessee’s. Customers must bring their own face mask and wear it at all times, while instructors have to wear a face mask and safety goggles. “We call our coaches little Minions because that’s what they look like,” Ms. Forsythe says, referring to the goggled characters from the “Despicable Me” movies. “We make the best of it and try to keep it fun.” Weekend classes have been fully booked, while weekday attendance has been mixed. Eight new members joined in the first week, a good number for this time of year, she says.

3 Star CrossFit in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., reopened on May 4, and while it has cut class sizes in half and mapped out 10-foot by 12-foot squares for social distancing, it is not requiring face masks. “We’re doing everything that we have to do and leaving that decision up to members,” says trainer Emily Gillis. “We’re in a big warehouse space and we’re keeping our two garage bay doors open to keep the air circulating, and we have an endless supply of approved cleaners.” They have also tweaked the CrossFit sessions so there is no partner work or equipment sharing. Showers and water fountains are closed.

“Our main demographic is soccer moms trying to stay healthy to play with her kids, and dads trying to defeat the dad-bod,” she says. The gym switched to an online reservation system, Ms. Gillis says, and average attendance last week was higher than normal.

Some large fitness chains, like Equinox and SoulCycle, have delayed opening locations nationwide, taking a wait-and-see approach. Gold’s Gym and Crunch Fitness, on the other hand, have reopened dozens of locations.

Crunch Fitness in Norman, Okla., reopened on May 4. Personal training director Troy Hail spent the prior weeks cleaning the facility, which was only a year old. “We used industrial-strength sanitizer on every weight, took apart every machine, re-oiled or reupholstered, and we have a big section of turf that I cleaned with an electrochemical spray and vacuumed four times,” he says. The 27-year-old personal trainer says all five of his private clients have come back in the last week.

Oklahoma state guidelines call for a temperature and wellness check at the door, but are less specific on face masks. Crunch corporate requires staff wear masks and gloves, Mr. Hail says. Though the gym recommends masks for customers, and even provides disposable ones, only about 10% of members are using them, he says, adding that gym traffic has been light, at less than 40% of capacity.


As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift, How Ready Are Gyms to Reopen?

Class Gets Underway At 3 Star Crossfit In Mt. Juliet, Tenn. In May. State Guidelines Require Disinfecting Products Be Within Easy Reach For Customers To Clean Equipment.


Every other cardio machine is roped off, all strength equipment is available, but there are no group classes. Showers are open; saunas, too, but limited to three people at a time, Mr. Hail says. For Dr. Thomas, though, saunas cross a line: they are tiny, closed spaces with little air movement.

Shauna Mazak is one of Mr. Hail’s clients. The 38-year-old respiratory therapist works nights in emergency and intensive care at Oklahoma’s OU Medical Center, and says the gym helps her keep her sanity. “When you’re in the heart of it working 12- to 16-hour shifts, you just want a release—you need a place to go where you can burn off that energy you don’t think you have,” she says.

She didn’t know what to expect. “This is a completely gray area that no one’s ever experienced before,” she said. “But they have hand sanitizer everywhere, people are always cleaning. I’m very pleased with how they’re doing everything.”

Updated: 7-6-2020

Gym Owners Sweat Out Reopening Strategies


Gyms Reopening May Not Facilitate Coronavirus Infections, Study Finds

An Instructor From Stamford Yoga Center Taught Virtual Classes From Her Home In Stamford, Conn.


Connecticut studios lament low customer turnout; gym owners in New York and New Jersey anxiously await the chance to fully reopen.

Gyms and fitness centers in Connecticut are seeing a slow warm-up after reopening their doors, with many customers still worried about the risk of coronavirus infection, while New York and New Jersey gym owners are anxious to get back on track soon.

Connecticut allowed fitness centers to reopen June 17 at 50% capacity, with gym goers required to keep 6 feet apart if masks are worn or 12 feet apart without them. For non-“vigorous” exercise, participants can be 6 feet apart with no masks. In New York officials haven’t allowed gyms to reopen, while New Jersey fitness instructors can offer outdoor classes and private indoor sessions by appointment.

Most Connecticut gym owners said attendance since reopening has been low, even for the typically slow summer season. Boutique fitness instructors said social-distancing rules were preventing them from bringing in enough business to pay the bills.

Bob McDowell, chief executive of the Riverbrook Regional YMCA, said daily visits to the facility in Wilton were down about 65% during the first eight days of reopening compared with the same week last year. The YMCA is requiring members to reserve time slots in advance for everything from its fitness center to the lap lanes in its pools, and Mr. McDowell said outdoor activities like swimming and paddle tennis are proving to be the most popular.

“I think people are just very, very cautious,” Mr. McDowell said, adding that he projects by the end of the year the Wilton YMCA will have lost $2 million in revenue, equal to about one-third of its operating budget.

Boutique fitness studios with business models that depend on group classes are now struggling with social-distancing regulations. Yoga studios, where mats were often spaced inches apart in popular classes pre-pandemic, are having trouble making the math work.

Bernadette Hutchings Birney, owner of Stamford Yoga Center, determined her 1,000-square-foot studio could accommodate four people per class, including the instructor. Before the pandemic, attendance for the most popular classes often reached 24 people.

Ms. Hutchings Birney is working with her landlord to find a larger, temporary space where she might be able to hold bigger indoor classes. Meanwhile, she’s offering online instruction as well as free classes in a downtown park. Still, revenue is down about 70% since March.

“We have a loyal community, but every boutique fitness business is hugely reliant on having new people,” she said. “We’re not having new people walking through the door.”

Jen Irwin, owner of Dew Yoga in Stamford, said she could only fit three or four students in her small studio under social-distancing restrictions. She can no longer afford her rent and is permanently closing her studio, but will continue to hold online and outdoor classes.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Ms. Irwin said. “The expense of the bricks-and-mortar are just not viable with reduced class sizes and safety restrictions.”

Ms. Irwin said she would eventually look for a new location and expects to have more affordable real estate options in coming months.

Fitness studios that operated with low student-to-instructor ratios before the pandemic are having an easier time complying with social-distancing rules. Claudia King, owner of Darien Pilates, teaches mostly private and semiprivate sessions and said about 40% of her clients have returned since she reopened June 24.

Scott Ackerman said classes at his three Club Pilates locations in Fairfield County are almost at capacity, although he’s had to reduce class sizes and modify the daily schedule to allow enough time to clean and sanitize the studio in between classes.

“It’s kind of a scary time to go to a big-box gym right now,” Mr. Ackerman said. “You’re going to have people gravitate to studios like ours.”

Many gym chains across the U.S. are struggling, with 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc. and Gold’s Gym International Inc. filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the pandemic.

Jack Banks, co-owner of two large gyms in northern Connecticut, said attendance has been lower since they reopened, but he believes it is because people are working out at home. Mr. Banks said foot traffic at his Malibu Fitness in Farmington and Powerhouse Gym in Berlin is about 30% lower than before the shutdown.

“Some customers say, ‘I’m fairly happy in the basement,’” Mr. Banks said. “But it’s a very rare person who can work out for years in their own home. Most treadmills eventually become coat racks.”

David Lehman, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said he doesn’t know of any coronavirus infections or outbreaks that have been linked to gyms or fitness studios. Public health officials will assess whether social-distancing and capacity rules can be relaxed once the state enters its next phase of reopening, the timing of which he said will likely be announced this week.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently delayed gym reopenings indefinitely, along with shopping malls and movie theaters, because he said the state Department of Health needs to further study indoor viral transmission.

Tammeca Rochester, owner of the boutique cycling studio Harlem Cycle, said she was disheartened by the delay. Her revenue is down at least 75% since mid-March, and keeping customers engaged through online classes has been challenging. She said she needed an idea of when she would be allowed to reopen so she can inform her clients and negotiate with her landlord.

“What will be the triggering factor that lets us open?” Ms. Rochester said. “It’s very hard to be optimistic when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mr. Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Gyms and fitness centers in New Jersey are mostly closed, although owners can offer outdoor classes and indoor instruction to individuals and their families, caretakers and romantic partners. In Montclair, Architect Studios co-owners Sarah Reppert and Adrienne Felder said they would start offering outdoor classes in addition to their online instruction, but don’t plan to open their doors until at least Labor Day regardless of whether the state loosens restrictions earlier.

“We don’t think people will really be running to come back to class and sweat and breathe on each other,” said Ms. Felder, whose studio focuses on high-intensity interval training. “We’re going to wait until it really feels safe.”

Updated: 9-17-2020

Owner of New York Sports Clubs Strikes Potential Lender Takeover Deal

Parent company Town Sports filed for bankruptcy after closing gyms due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The owner of New York Sports Clubs and Lucille Roberts gyms is preparing to sell itself out of bankruptcy to lenders that have agreed to supply the financing needed to keep the fitness chains open.

Town Sports International Holdings Inc. said in a bankruptcy-court hearing on Wednesday it is working out a deal with a group of lenders and private-equity firm Tacit Capital LLC for them to serve as the lead bidder, or stalking horse, for the assets. The offer would come in the form of debt forgiveness of no more than $85 million, setting a minimum price for other bidders to beat.

Town Sports selected the Tacit-led group over a competing offer from lender Kennedy Lewis Investment Management LLC, which holds 45% of the company’s debt.

The Tacit-led group agreed to allow Town Sports to use cash collateral pledged to the lenders to cover operating costs, pending the negotiation of a larger financing package to carry the company through bankruptcy.

Town Sports filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday after facing debt coming due this fall as well as reduced cash flow and liquidity due to coronavirus-related closures.

Company executives need access to capital “so they can reopen the gyms with appropriate health and safety improvements, and comply with relevant consumer protection laws and obligations,” said Nicole Greenblatt, a lawyer representing Town Sports, during the court hearing, held via teleconference.

Judge Christopher Sontchi of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., said that he would approve the use of the cash collateral.

Under the lender deal, Town Sports has until next week to file a strategy for marketing and selling its assets. The company said it aims to wrap up the sale around the end of October.

Judge Sontchi said he was “very troubled by the sale timeline,” noting that the company has yet to be shopped around.

Lenders supporting the Tacit bid include Abry Partners LLC, Apex Credit Partners LLC, CIFC Asset Management LLC and Ellington Management Group LLC.

Town Sports had initially favored backing from Kennedy Lewis, which would have kept about 94 of its 190 gyms open, depending on lease negotiations with landlords.

Tacit had alleged that Kennedy Lewis’s proposal would have created a conflict of interest because it provided Town Sports Chief Executive Patrick Walsh and Kennedy Lewis with equity in the company while lenders were largely wiped out.

Philip Dublin, an attorney for Kennedy Lewis, said it “decided to not pursue” a fight “that would not have been in the best interest of the estate.”

In response, Judge Sontchi said, “I’m very happy to hear that more reasonable heads have prevailed.”

After its bankruptcy filing, Town Sports sought to reassure its roughly 600,000 members that it wasn’t going out of business through postings on its gym brands’ websites. As of Monday, the chain said it had reopened about 95 gyms.

The company has requested to give back 22 location leases to its landlords and potentially reject 13 more locations, depending on lease negotiations.

As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift,As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift,As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift,As Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift



 

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