Gyms and fitness centers in Washington state reopened this week after an eight-week closure due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was the second of two mandated closures they’ve endured in 2020, and reopening comes under strict guidelines in Inslee’s “Healthy Washington” plan to reopen the state. Phase 1 started statewide on Monday, and permits appointment-only workouts, allowing one customer per room or per 500 square feet for larger facilities, with masks and physical distancing required. In Phase 2, gyms and fitness centers can increase capacity to 25%.
Many gym owners say current regulations won’t allow them to operate sustainably, and that after nearly a year of operating at limited capacity, Phase 1 guidelines will result in them falling deeper into debt or being forced to close for good. Getting into Phase 2 will help them stay in business, they say, and they may break even should the pandemic level out in a few months, but many are still skating thin ice.
Eric VanderWaal, who owns martial arts studio Washington Han Mu Do in Maple Valley, said he is “barely breaking even” and that he’s had to work “a lot more hours to stay afloat.” He’ll only be able to keep his business profitable if he’s allowed to operate at 50% capacity, he estimates.
For smaller fitness studios, the 500-square-foot rule limits them to one or two athletes per session.
“We’re going to continue to lose money,” said Tim Himmelberger, owner of YogaSix in Sammamish. “Only two people can attend yoga class for now. Normally we have 30-plus.”
Gym and fitness center owners say they serve an integral role by keeping communities healthy and that they should have been allowed to stay open in some capacity.
“The fact that comorbidities are a significant indicator of increased fatality rates among those who contract this virus should be a reason for essential status for fitness centers,” said Michael Stevens, owner of Thrive Community Fitness in Oak Harbor. “In addition, individuals who participate in regular exercise are less likely to succumb to depression and anxiety and are more likely to get better, more regenerative sleep.”
“I understand asking us to shut down when COVID first hit and no one knew much about it, but once people learned more about it, the one-size-fits-all policy didn’t seem fair” said Melissa Olsson, owner of Twenty Pound Hammer, a CrossFit gym in Ballard.
Also, gyms argue that their membership-only business models make contact tracing easy in the event of an outbreak.
“We not only know who was in the gym, but who else was in the gym at the same time. Other players who have a constant flow of people can’t easily trace who was there when.” said Karl Sanft, chief operating officer for 24 Hour Fitness, which operates 300 clubs nationally, including 10 in Washington.
24 Hour Fitness, which filed for bankruptcy in June (then emerged from bankruptcy in December), has introduced enhanced safety measures, which include touch-free check-in, signage and spatial indicators for social distancing and 45-minute workout reservations.
“We’ve had over 15 million check-ins across the country since June, and have yet to have a COVID breakout or case that is contact-traced back to our club,” Sanft said.
Washington has been one of the strictest states in terms of regulating gym operations during COVID-19, said Blair McHaney, president of the Washington Fitness Alliance, an advocacy group that formed during the pandemic. Washington’s gyms were forced to close in the spring, allowed to reopen under strict guidelines in the summer, then had to shut again in November. McHaney says that until this week, Washington, Oregon and California were the only states where gyms remained shut.
But the state Department of Health says gym operation is so strictly regulated because it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how COVID-19 is being transmitted in communities.
“With limited data on where transmission is occurring in Washington, we need to rely on the science around how this virus is spread,” said Kristen Maki, a DOH public information officer. “We know that a primary risk factor for spreading the virus is contact with an infected person in indoor spaces.”
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when someone talks, coughs or breathes. According to the CDC, there is increased potential for the virus to spread in indoor fitness classes, but masks and proper ventilation decrease that risk.
Many Washington state gym owners say they’ve spent considerable time and capital on upgrades to keep members safe during the pandemic.
“I invested over $8,000 on a commercial grade, external air intake system in an attempt to make my business as safe as possible,” said Jenny Kuenzli, who owns Anytime Fitness in Ellensberg, and is one of multiple gym owners polled for this story who have upgraded ventilation systems during the pandemic.
In addition, many have implemented new safety protocols including temperature checks, appointment-based workouts, closures of common areas like basketball courts and saunas, increasing distance between cardio machines, requiring masks at all times, and conducting regularly scheduled cleanings in between fitness sessions throughout the day.
McHaney says he would like to see the state prescribe regulations based on safety measures.
“Ideally, I’d look at criteria for HVAC systems,” said McHaney. “Provided you have the appropriate HVAC system that optimizes airflow, air filtering, and increased air turns businesses should be able to operate at 25% capacity.”
But even that might not save gyms when society emerges at the other end of the pandemic. Some owners say they’ve lost enough members through closures that they worry about long-term sustainability.
Alicia Munro, owner of True Fitness Gym in Chelan and Mason, says the prolonged gym closures caused irreparable harm because “a lot of people have put in home gyms and purchased cardio equipment for their homes.”
“I have half the membership base I used to,” Munro said, adding that some members are leery of returning in case gyms are forced to close again. “We can’t go through another closure.”