January is normally the busiest time of the year for gyms.
Not during COVID-19.
Without the typical New Year’s resolution crowd, fitness centers must find other ways to get through the pandemic.
At Fitness Unbound in St. Johnsbury, owner Matthew Wells said the lack of a January rush is tough when business is already down significantly. He lost 200 members during the first COVID wave last spring.
“January is when gyms like mine get people up and going, in order to pay for expenses at the end of the year, when people pause their memberships, cancel, or do whatever,” he said.
Despite financial challenges, Wells is doing his best to keep his customers safe.
Equipment is spaced six-feet apart, or separated by floor-to-ceiling plastic barriers. Masks are required when social distance cannot be observed. The gym is cleaned and sanitized more frequently.
His cleaning supply costs have skyrocketed. During COVID, he has used a two-gallon garden sprayer to sterilize the facility. Due to high demand for wet wipes, he has spent on paper towels, spray bottles and sanitizing fluid.
He has applied lessons learned through the Vermont National Guard to protect public health. He helped to build a 400-unit COVID field hospital in April and was recently appointed to the Guard’s contact tracing team.
“We’ve exceeded every guideline and we will continue doing that,” he said, noting that inquiries from across state lines are turned away. “I’ve had people from Littleton call. I said with the travel ban in effect, I can’t give you a membership.”
While COVID poses problems, Wells counts himself lucky.
He refinanced most of his business loans in January 2020, when Fitness Unbound reached the five-year mark.
“Thank God I did. If I hadn’t, I don’t know if I’d be doing as well — or even open at this point,” he said.
Wells has already received his first vaccine dose through the National Guard.
He hopes widespread vaccination, and herd immunity, will lead people to resume working out indoors.
Part of that is personal. He worries about the long-term mental and physical impacts of gyms being closed. He expressed confidence the industry would rebound and public health would improve.
However, there’s no telling when that will happen.
“That’s a hard one. That’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out,” he said. “I want people to come in, but I want them to be safe.”
Other local facilities have faced similar challenges.
In Littleton, Laurie Dorion had planned a women’s only gym on Main Street.
There was high interest when she and her husband, Joe, signed the lease for a 2,800 square foot space on Feb. 28. But before they could open their doors, the pandemic hit.
COVID made a gender-specific gym impractical. So they purchased 11 rowing machines and opened Oct. 1 as a co-ed facility, Jola Rowing.
“This was going to be a women’s only gym with a private personal training room. Then COVID happened and we said ‘We can’t just limit it to women.’ So we kicked around ideas,” Laurie said.
Rowing machines seemed like a perfect solution. They are low impact, high intensity, and suitable for people of all ages. The machines are self-paced and connected to virtual networks, providing access to online classes and leader boards.
Addressing COVID safety concerns, Laurie said they have exceeded state social distance and capacity guidelines. The facility is private, members only, and by appointment.
“People who are members feel comfortable with us. There are no more than four members at any given time, and we stagger them. The facility is huge. If we had 10 rowers in this space, we’d be less clustered than a restaurant,” she said.
The parents of two children — ages 25 and 10 — they have invested approximately $60,000 in the gym.
To date, they have not qualified for government aid (a first-year business, they lack sufficient paperwork). They hope the latest COVID relief package can offer some assistance. In the meantime, they plan to launch a membership drive. They hope to attract two dozen new members.
“I’m thinking we probably need $10,000 to $15,000 to make sure we stay alive for the next six months,” Joe said.
How do you teach contact sports without contact?
That’s the question Greg Williams, owner of Kaze Dojo in Lancaster, has been trying to answer for the past 10 months.
During the pandemic, the martial arts studio has restricted access to its facility, reduced in-person class sizes, and explored virtual training options.
Membership is down two-thirds from before the pandemic, Williams said.
“We’re pretty much slowed down quite a bit,” he said.
The facility was essentially closed from March to October. Today it offers small classes with a maximum of three students, to allow for social distance, and some one-on-one training.
For the time being, they are not accepting students from out of town, and Williams has decided to follow school district guidelines. If Lancaster Elementary or White Mountains Regional High School go remote, Kaze will close until they re-open.
Students are expected to follow conventional COVID rules and screen themselves for symptoms.
Early on, Williams offered virtual classes through Facebook Live. Noting that some members are unwilling to return in person during COVID, Williams is considering a return to a hybrid lesson model, which would allow some people to train at home.
In the past, Kaze Dojo has trained mixed martial arts fighters, who competed in organized bouts. Those have been put on hold during COVID.
Asked when the gym would resume “normal” operations, Williams wasn’t sure.
“I would hope this summer, but honestly will it ever be back to completely normal?” he asked. “There are so many variables. I hope as soon as possible But whatever it takes to keep everybody safe.”