Daniel Root opened his first fitness studio in February, one month before the novel coronavirus upended his business plans.

Now he’s hoping that enhanced cleaning and social distancing procedures will entice customers back after two and a half months closed. The 57-year-old owner of a City Row location in Boca Raton, Fla., reopened on June 1 with a schedule of intense rowing workouts for US$25 per class.

He says the next few weeks will be crucial. In the three days since his location reopened, it’s offered two or three classes a day, with nine customers each, compared to four or five with 18 spots. Four were sold out, Root says, and the rest were about 75 per cent full. “It’s a little different vibe than you’re used to,” he says, noting that members can no longer linger in the studio before and after class to socialize. However, everyone who came back has understood why changes were made, Root notes. “I haven’t had any pushback, or anything like that, from anyone.” 

City dwellers who have been cooped up in tiny apartments for the past three months are eager to resume their regular workout routines. But when luxury fitness studios do restart, the experience will be drastically different.About two-thirds of states, including Florida and Illinois, are allowing gyms to reopen. But high-density cities in California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., are still closed while officials contemplate strategies. Along with Florida, a key state to watch is Texas, which allowed gyms to resume operations on May 18. Equinox, a high-end chain with 105 locations nationwide and 35 in New York City, has reopened clubs in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, Tex. The company’s SoulCycle brand, which offers cycling classes for US$36 each, has reopened five of its 99 locations, including sites in Houston, Dallas, and Vancouver. 

The company is using these locations as test grounds to see what a gradual return to normal will look like. Beyond increased disinfecting and social distancing protocols, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. “The COVID crisis is highly dynamic, and we are looking at this daily from a local perspective,” says Judy Turchin, Equinox’s chief operating officer. She says there is currently no concrete plan to reopen gyms in New York. 

Turchin says that an internal exit poll survey, 96 per cent of members in the newly reopened gyms said Equinox met or exceeded their expectations on cleanliness. A majority of regular members has returned. 

Getting the reopenings right will be crucial for the fitness industry’s survival. It’s been hit especially hard by coronavirus shutdowns and has experienced a swell of bankruptcies with more than US$10 billion of revenue wiped out, according to investment bank Harrison Co. In a survey of 1,000 fitness club users, more than a third said they have canceled, or plan to terminate, existing memberships. WinterGreen Research estimates that the fitness and health club industry could shrink to US$45 billion this year, down from US$85 billion in 2019.

A Clean Start

For popular fitness chain Barry’s, which offers strength and cardio interval fitness workouts for US$38 per class, Chief Executive Officer Joey Gonzalez says that consideration as to how to safely restart classes in its 44 studios has involved focus groups with clients and consultations with an advisory council of health-care experts.

Barry’s plans to have open treadmills on each side of running clients to maintain social distancing. Benches will no longer be shared in the workout circuit. The chain is also offering hand sanitizer throughout its locations and installing shield guards at the front desk to protect employees. 

At Equinox, health checks will start before they enter the studio. Members and employees will have to complete a form on the Equinox app before each visit, confirming that they are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and have not come in contact with anyone who is. 

Clients will book visits in advance, using the app. On arriving, body temperature will be taken via a touchless thermometer. They will check in via the app to minimize contact with front-desk employees.They’ll also be required to wear face coverings at all times, “except while vigorously training,” according to the club’s website. It is also recommended—but not required—that they wear gloves during their visit.

Equinox has ramped up sanitizing procedures as well. While clubs have always been cleaned continuously through the day, each area of the club will be closed off and deep cleaned three times daily and once again overnight. An electrostatic sprayer will spot-disinfect higher-touch areas throughout the day.

Members will be provided with hand sanitizer containing aloe vera and essential oils, as well as disinfecting wipes to sanitize equipment they use. They can also disinfect their phones and personal devices in less than 30 seconds with new touchless UV-C sanitizers.Physical distancing is a key theme.

Classes will contain fewer people, although the number of classes will remain the same. The types of classes offered have been adjusted to comply with local guidelines and to limit the sharing of equipment. 

Visits will be limited to 90 minutes, and the number of people allowed at a time depends on a number of factors, including the club’s square footage. At SoulCycle locations, regular class schedules will be in effect, although the number of bikes available to book will be limited. 

In the locker rooms, restroom stalls and sinks will be designated for use in order to maintain separation, and new signs will indicate best practices for separation. 

In the weight area, certain equipment will be unplugged and clearly marked to increase distances between clients; 30-minute time limits may be imposed, if necessary. Such amenities as showers, steam rooms, saunas, and pools will be closed entirely.

“We have done absolutely everything to ensure the safety of our clubs,” Turchin says. “I do feel that it is safe.”

Despite the changes, there is currently no plan to alter membership fees. Monthly memberships start at approximately US$190 in New York for select access and increase for all-access, destination, executive, and E memberships.  

Helaine Knapp, founder and CEO of City Row, says its studios have spaced rowing machines to enable social distancing and are asking clients to sanitize them before and after workouts, in addition to disinfection by designated staff as well. Showers are not available, and there is limited locker capacity. (At Barry’s, showers and locker rooms are temporarily unavailable; locker rooms are open only for hand-washing and bathroom use.)

In addition to Boca Raton, City Row locations in Atlanta and Allen, Tex., have reopened. Sites in Portland, Ore., and Denver are next, Knapp notes. She says they’re learning that different areas of the country have varying virus situations and concerns. 

“Each of our 11 studios have their own local community, and our goal is to listen and make sure that our members feel safe and comfortable about returning,” she says. Despite allowance by several state governments for gyms to reopen, Barry’s isn’t rushing back. Its Texas studios reopened on June 1, but there aren’t any concrete plans to reopen others.  

Reducing Risk

Although returning to a gym or fitness class entails risk, health experts say there are ways to minimize the danger to yourself and others.

Dr. Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, recommends wearing a mask whenever possible, although she recognizes the difficulty of doing so while exercising vigorously.

“Anytime you can have a mask on and tolerate it, you should,” she says. “People can spread COVID-19 before they know they have it, and sometimes people who have it have no symptoms at all and are contagious.”

Avoiding locker rooms and showering at home instead might be a good idea for now, even if they are open, she notes, especially because those tend to be in high-density areas.

Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, stresses the importance of seeking out less-trafficked parts of gyms and avoiding visits during peak hours. In addition, members should press for more clarity on how the gyms are working to enhance cleaning procedures and keep visitors safe.

“The time has long gone when we didn’t ask questions. N>ow we have to ask these question, we have to make sure,” he says.

Although there’s always the danger that fellow gym-goers won’t comply with the new procedures, Sexton thinks most will do the right thing.

“People are nervous,. No one would ever want to be the cause of an outbreak at their gym,” she says. “I think most people will want to cooperate.”