NW Fitness, a fitness center in First Hill, has lost 200 members since gyms and fitness studios closed in March under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Hoping to retain existing members when his gym reopened after King County entered Phase 2 of Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan, NW Fitness owner John Carrico bought spray bottles and temperature guns and hired more staff to enforce social distancing and keep the facilities clean around the clock. Under Phase 2 rules, NW Fitness had to temporarily discontinue the group fitness classes it used to run, but members still had 24/7 access to the club’s workout equipment. 

Now, they’re trying to figure out what operational changes are necessary after Inslee announced updated guidance for gyms and indoor fitness centers on Monday that mandates 300 square feet of distance between patrons. Meaning, once you’re in a gym, you must move and operate within a 20-foot-by-15-foot box. For large fitness studios and gyms (defined as 12,000 square feet and up), the updated guidance caps occupancy at 25% of the facility’s capacity.

The new rules take effect Aug. 10, and come after extended discussions between Washington’s gyms and Inslee’s office. Last month, Inslee introduced a rule for counties in Phase 2 that limited gym capacity to five people. After pushback from the fitness community, implementation of that rule was delayed as the two sides tried to work out clearer guidelines based on facility size. The result? The new 300-square-foot requirement that more than triples the original, standard 6-foot distancing requirement.

The 300-square-foot guideline “feels punitive” and was unexpected, said Blair McHaney, board chair of the Washington Fitness Alliance, a coalition of 219 Washington state gyms that formed amid the pandemic to work with state officials on safe reopening guidelines for the fitness industry.  Requiring 300 square feet around each patron is unnecessary, McHaney said, especially because many other states have managed to reopen gyms with less stringent social-distancing rules and still keep people safe.

McHaney, who owns two gyms in Wenatchee Valley, pointed to Rhode Island as an example of a state that has been successful with less stringent gym reopening guidelines.

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Rhode Island mandates 100 square feet of distance per person in open gym settings, and unlike Washington’s rule that requires patrons to remain within their sphere of space, Rhode Island’s rule “just says, ‘use that as a way to limit the number of people in a room.’ Then they’ll act like adults and with few enough people in the room, they can social distance plenty,” McHaney said.

“Now [Washington’s 300-foot rule] presents an impossible task to the [health] club operator. How do you get everybody to move in synchronicity within a location? What do you do when there’s certain equipment that can’t be moved?” McHaney said.

Rhode Island, however, is in the most advanced phase of its state reopening plan and has had 661 coronavirus cases in the last week. Most of Washington is still in phases two and three of Inslee’s four-phase plan, and the state is still reporting hundreds of new coronavirus cases daily.

Fitness clubs have been hard hit by coronavirus restrictions. 24-Hour Fitness, a national chain with two Seattle-area sites, filed for bankruptcy in June, citing losses due to coronavirus. 

With membership-derived income down and overhead costs going up, Washington’s new 300-square-foot rule is another curveball for many small gym owners as they try to stay afloat in an increasingly tough economic climate, Carrico says.

“Our primary goal is to keep people safe and healthy. We don’t want to contribute to the problem. We want to do our part. But we have to survive to do our part,” Carrico says. 

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Mike Faulk, Inslee’s press secretary, said the 300 square feet of distance between patrons is necessary because of the heavy breathing that accompanies exercise.

“Strenuous activity leads to heavier breathing, it even changes the way the air around us moves, which leads to a higher risk of COVID transmission,” Faulk said. “Meaning the usual 6 feet of distance is not appropriate to mitigate transmission as it might be in a typical public setting.”

It’s difficult to define the exact social distance necessary to keep patrons safe in gyms, says Dr. Seth Cohen, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington. The further away the better, Cohen says, but it also depends on each gym’s ventilation and cleaning practices. 

“When people are exercising and exercising vigorously, it’s really possible that those droplets can be generated and travel further distances,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure there’s a right answer. I think part of it depends on the individual’s tolerance for risk and also how high-risk that person is.” 

As they have done numerous times since the pandemic hit Washington, gyms are experimenting to figure out what works within the new rules.

Kutting Edge Fitness, which has locations in Kirkland and Issaquah, used to run 12- to 15-person classes, and four-person classes in its 4,000-square-foot space. They discontinued the bigger classes at the start of the pandemic, said owner Dan Kleckner, but the four-person classes led by one trainer work perfectly with the state’s new rules. Each client takes up a corner of the room and works out in their own 500-square-foot bubble. 

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“We’ve actually had quite a bit of an influx of new people in the last two months that have been attracted to this small group customized workout,” Kleckner said. “So it’s been good for us.” 

Large fitness chains and smaller group workout classes are going to suffer the most from the coronavirus restrictions, said Kleckner.

Kutting Edge found a niche with its four-person classes and NW Fitness has managed to fit 10 people in its space; but Live Love Flow, a Seattle fitness studio with group cycling and yoga classes has had to redesign its entire business model, lay off instructors, and figure out how to sustain the business with very few in-person customers. 

With the 300-square-foot policy, Live Love Flow can only fit four customers across two rooms. So, they’ve moved almost all their classes online, which has allowed them to run online teacher-training programs. They have also found “a global audience looking for opportunities to learn and grow while they’re at home,” said founder Indira Avdić.    

“There has to be a standard in place; we as a studio understand that,” Avdić said. “But what is the difference between 6 feet and 300 square feet per person? Is this going to significantly reduce transmission rates? It’s hard to know the truth today. We’ll do our best to adapt and serve our community as long as possible.”

But with gyms and fitness studios having to constantly rewrite business and operations strategies to abide by evolving guidance, and no end to social distancing in sight, will the industry survive the coronavirus pandemic? 

“You’re going to see a large portion of the local business sector just take a dive, and it’s gonna be tough,” said Carrico. “People are gonna have to redo their résumés and go work for Amazon.”    

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