Gyms are eager to reopen, but are they safe?

They were included in the first phase of President Donald Trump's guidelines for reopening the country.
Unable to work out at her gym since it closed due to coronavirus, a woman exercises in a quiet corner at the entrance to City Hall in Boston on March 21, 2020.
Unable to work out at her gym since it closed due to coronavirus, a woman exercises in a quiet corner at the entrance to City Hall in Boston on March 21, 2020.David Goldman / AP
/ Source: NBC News
By Ahiza García-Hodges

Gyms are used to seeing attendance drops a few months into the start of a new year when resolutions fade. But nothing could have prepared them for the drop they experienced because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In late February, as the outbreak worsened, gyms took steps to protect customers, such as limiting class sizes and ramping up cleaning procedures. By mid-March, local ordinances started forcing many to close their doors as sweat-laden, shared surfaces meant increased risk of spreading COVID-19.

While some gyms continued to collect membership fees, most quickly lost all revenue. Some eventually pivoted to digital and started offering live-streamed workouts. But most were offered for free or directed donations to their instructors.

In President Donald Trump's guidelines announced this week for reopening the country, gyms were included in the first phase, "if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols."

Crunch CEO Jim Rowley said the company gave money to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association to help with its efforts to lobby for the inclusion of gyms in phase one. Both Crunch and the association were surprised to learn gyms had actually been included when the guidelines were released.

"It was probably the first time I'd smiled in 30 days," he said. "It was the first time gyms have been mentioned, and we were mentioned in phase one. I couldn’t wait to get the document and read it."

Rowley said Crunch is too big to qualify for small business assistance but too small to receive an industry bailout. The chain hasn't brought in revenue for weeks and is running out of money.

While Rowley is itching to reopen, he said the company has to introduce measures to ensure members and employees are safe.

"We've spent the last three weeks working on a comprehensive plan for reemerging," he said. "We have a 37-page manual for our clubs that covers everything from social distancing measures to sanitation and disinfection guidance."

Rowley said the management teams has reviewed every part of the gym experience from how customers check in to how they move about the facilities.

Every location will have prominent signs explaining what customers can expect and encouraging mindfulness. There will also be additions like vinyl arrows on the floor to direct the flow of traffic and grids taped on studio floors to ensure people stay in their spots throughout classes. Equipment like treadmills will be placed six feet apart.

"I'm a former Marine and as we reemerge, I’ve really been focusing our team on how do we come out of this stronger, what can we take from this experience," he said. "This is the way we want to do things into perpetuity. This won’t be the last virus, but we can create these good habits."

Equinox is also focused on ensuring that customers are safe whenever they return. The chain had already upped its cleaning and disinfecting processes before closing but has since been "extensively" researching and implementing additional safety measures.

"We have set up a dedicated task force that is responsible for working with leading medical experts on a thoughtful and comprehensive plan that goes above and beyond the guidelines of health organizations," said Equinox Group Executive Chairman Harvey Spevak.

Helaine Knapp, founder and CEO of CityRow, said she's "conservatively optimistic" about reopening.

"I’m excited, but we’re going to move as conservatively as possible," she said. "We'll stay at the maximum protective level for our clients and staff even if that means reduced potential for revenue."

CityRow has eleven existing studios and three in the works across 10 states, including California, New York, Texas and Florida.

Given that governors will decide when to reopen their states, it's unclear when all of CityRow's studios will be back in action, but Knapp said she would prioritize the most cautious guidance.

She said the guidelines "are very broad" and don't contain many specifics, but she feels "well-positioned" to reopen because CityRow's classes are already small, rowers keep the same machine for the entire class, and studios are thoroughly and regularly cleaned.

There may be some adjustments like offering classes at half-capacity to start, and each location will be treated differently depending on where the city is in the process of containing the outbreak.

CityRow closed its locations on March 15, which Knapp said was "really tough" because it had been her baby since she was 25. But she did have one advantage over most studios. In 2018, she launched CityRowGo, an arm of the business that sells in-home rowers and is built around an on-demand app. That side of the business has grown steadily since mid-March.

Knapp also had the foresight to film 10 workouts with CityRow instructors days before she was forced to close her studios. Those videos bought her team time before they were ready to offer live workouts.

The new offerings might not continue after the outbreak, but they've been helpful in the interim as a smaller source of revenue. While online classes are much cheaper than studio classes, the cushion means there's less pressure to rush reopening.