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Gyms Across the Country Are Starting to Reopen—Here’s What the New Normal Will Look Like

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerMay 19, 2020

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Woman tying her shoelaces. Studio shot on wooden

More than a month after closing their doors for the sake of social distancing, fitness studios across the country are beginning to reopen. In 22 states, gyms have already welcomed back their members, and many others are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks. But when you walk into your favorite class for the first time, things will look decidedly different than they did in the pre-COVID 19 world.

In our new version of normal, studios will be adhering to the social distancing guidelines set forth by states and taking a number of protective measures to keep their clients safe. In a survey of 300 of its partner studios, Classpass, for example, found that 49 percent plan to reduce their class capacities by half when they reopen, and 58 percent will no longer offer hands-on adjustments.

The reason why is fairly obvious. According to Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Files, “the gym is up there in places where you would have the highest risk for the spread of the coronavirus,” so it makes sense that studios are proceeding with caution. He calls out the fact that because people are breathing harder when they workout, they’re more likely to sputter out respiratory droplets, which can remain on surfaces and risk infecting others. Because of this, the gym will be forced to shape-shift into a new era, for the safety of all who workout within their walls.

How the gym will change post COVID-19

In some places, this “new reality” has already taken hold. Solidcore re-opened its brick and mortars in five locations (Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot, Fargo and West Fargo) on May 9, and has moved its machines so that students are seven feet apart. People are encouraged to show up no more than 10 minutes early, locker rooms will remain closed, and coaches will be wearing masks and gloves, and will not be offering hands-on form corrections (or post-class high-fives). And of course, “we’ll be providing ample wipes before and after class. Like, so many wipes,” the brand said in an Instagram post on May 6.

Major changes will also be implemented at SoulCycle as the brand begins re-opening its studios, including a “heightened deep-cleaning process,” new cancellation policies, and temperature checks for all staff members. Only certain bikes and lockers will be available for use in order to keep riders at a safe distance from one another, and showers will be off-limits.

In addition to these very practical solutions studios are putting in place, Bruce Smith, CEO and founder of Hydrow can even envision a world in which clean health passports are required of all athletes before entering the gym. He also imagines that gyms will have to set aside some money to build dividers between workout stations, encourage the use of face masks for everyone who enters, and devote a full-time cleaning crew to wiping down device in between uses.

“I look at it as we’re launching a new product,” Barre3 founder Sadie Lincoln said during Well+Good Talks on Tuesday evening. Currently, she is beginning to plan re-openings for her brick and mortar studios across the country.  “This is like one giant modification. When you’re injured, you have to modify, but it doesn’t mean the move is going to be less than, it’s just what your body needs in that moment. And right now, we’re having to do that from a business perspective.” In her studios, that will mean smaller classes, which she’s choosing to see as an opportunity for trainers and clients to have a more connected experience.

How studios are standardizing re-open protocol

While there’s a long list of to-do’s to prep for these new realities, it’s worth noting that only about half of studios plan to open up as soon as local government authorities allow it. A whopping 28 percent said that they would wait one to two extra weeks after it has been deemed safe, and 22 percent are still figuring out what the new reality will look like for them, keeping doors shut in the meantime.

To help the studios that are choosing to reopen, in places where it’s allowed, ease into the process safely, Mindbody put forth a “Reboot Toolkit” that outlines best practices for businesses. They suggest increasing the number of classes to accommodate more students in smaller groups, allowing people to book their mat or bike ahead of time, and leaving significant time between sessions for studio cleanings.

Similarly, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association shared a list of health and safety considerations, detailing how gyms should enforce social distancing, how to make group fitness less germy (read: UV lamps and fog cleanings), and how to prep staffers for the new realities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report points to China’s gym re-opening strategy—which involved members reserving access to gyms in 90-minute time blocks (with an hour-long cleaning period between blocks), keeping locker rooms and pools closed, and requiring staff members to wear masks—as a good model to follow.

The hybrid digital-and-in-class model is getting stronger

From a financial standpoint, gyms big and small have taken a major hit during social distancing. Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, and many studios (including Solidcore) have had to lay off or furlough their instructors. But as people have become more comfortable with working out at home, it remains to be seen if the industry as a whole will be able to recover—especially with these new restrictions on businesses. As such, we suspect digital fitness will become a more integrated part of the boutique fitness experience.

“We are being realistic when it comes to what these restrictions might mean for business,” says Bryan Myers, the President and COO of Solidcore. “We understand that not everyone will be comfortable coming back to in-person workouts immediately, and we are also aware that economic circumstances for many of our clients have changed.” He notes that the brand will continue to offer its at-home classes, and will monitor what’s working and what’s not working in studios and make changes as needed.

“The bigger question is whether or not consumers will accept all the hassles and the changes at these gyms in addition to the constant reminder of the risk they’re taking in exposing themselves to the virus,” says Smith. The good news, though, is that thanks to digital fitness (and the meteoric rise its seen over the last two months) there are still ways to support the studios you love without having to physically go to them. And when you’re ready to return, the good news is that studios are doing all they can to make sure that you have a safe space to sweat.

“Anyone with brick and mortar is looking at how do I leverage both as an ecosystem: the online program with the brick-and-mortar program,” says Lincoln. “Nothing can replace being in person with that beat and the music and the people. Those build community and that isn’t going to go away, that’s going to become augmented with digital in a really powerful way.”

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