Fitness centers began opening again when Utah went to ‘Yellow’ status, but members have been slow to return

Removing 40 of the 48 heavy bags that hung from the rafters, mounting TVs and dividers to create two virtual training booths and scrubbing his studio by hand several times a day. Owner Jon Bish has gotten a workout preparing his Title Boxing gym in Sugarhouse to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But waiting to see if his clients will return is what’s really making him sweat.

“Since the COVID, initially everybody[‘s membership] was put on hold,” Bish said. “And it’s kind of been a slow bleed of those holds turning into cancels.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trisha Henderson of Salt Lake City hits a heavy bag during a group class at Title Boxing Gym in Sugarhouse, June 5, 2020.

Gyms and fitness centers statewide began to reopen in May after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert lightened coronavirus restrictions he’d had in place since mid-March. To comply with government regulations, they have cordoned off equipment, either with signs or actual rope, to try to keep people 6 feet apart. They have installed no-contact check-in stations and reservation systems for classes. Most don’t allow members to use locker rooms, showers or even water fountains.

Those in Salt Lake City, Mexican Hat and Bluff, which remain in the orange phase level while the rest of the state has moved to yellow, face even more stringent guidelines. Some, like 24 Hour Fitness on East Ashton Avenue, have kept their doors closed. Others, like Title Boxing, located less than a mile away on 2100 East, have gone to great lengths to let members through their doors.

Bish said to comply with the 10-feet of separation required for gyms in cities in the orange phase, he has had to remove almost four-fifths of the 150-pound heavy bags that previously hung from the ceiling. Red tape stuck in a rectangle on the floor in the middle of the room contains instructors who used to freely roam the room. Additionally, he put some funds from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan toward building two small stations and filming several sessions so customers could get a heavy-bag workout without attending a group class.

Yet all that work hasn’t produced much payout thus far. Bish said in the three weeks the gym has been open, only about half of his clients have renewed their membership and only about a third are attending group classes.

“There’s just so many people that are, at least from what the numbers are telling us, aren’t ready to come back,” he said, “especially into a group setting, which, again, is why we built those [stations], to try to hit that genre and say, ‘Hey, here’s another option for you.’”

Gyms are considered one of the places people are at the highest risk of catching COVID-19. During vigorous workouts, people breathe heavier and therefore emit more airborne secretions that travel farther than those from a person breathing normally. Plus, the exertion makes it uncomfortable to wear a mask. In addition, the classes are held indoors, where the secretions are less likely to be dissipated by the wind and where more common touch points exist.

In South Korea, researchers traced 112 cases of COVID-19 back to one four-hour Zumba class attended by 27 teachers, none of whom were displaying signs of the virus during the class. It should be noted, though, that yoga and pilates classes, which are typically less vigorous, taught at the same venue resulted in no known cases.

Those who have returned to their gyms say the rewards are worth whatever risks they face.

“They give you a lot of freedom to feel as clean as you need to,” said James Greene, 27, of Holladay, who returned to Planet Fitness in Millcreek within the first few days it opened. “But at the same time you feel safe because you see them making the change and going out of their way to clean it.”

Planet Fitness saw a steady stream of patrons coming and going during a 100-degree day Friday. Among them was Isaac Gowon, a 43-year-old tech support engineer who was signing up for a new membership. He said he got tired of waiting for his usual gym, 24 Hour Fitness, to open back up.

Just up the road, at least a hundred patrons sheltered from Saturday’s rain at a recently reopened VASA Fitness center, where social distancing was hard to achieve despite signs marking benches and machines as off limits.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Women work out at Title Boxing Gym in Sugarhouse, June 5, 2020.

Danielle Hardy, 32, a self-proclaimed germaphobe from Holladay, said she tried online workouts during quarantine, but the professional wrestler could get motivated neither by those nor by running. She returned to Title Boxing the day after it opened but said she made her choice based less on her physical health than her mental health.

“It’s really helped my mental state,” she said of the workouts, which center around hitting the heavy bags. “For most of us, this is our sanctuary. It’s part of our release and where we come to work on our problems or whatever is bothering us. I’m so grateful it’s back.”

For some gym members, it’s not the health risks but the downturn of the economy that will keep them from returning. For that reason, fitness centers across the country, both large and small, expect to feel some fallout from COVID-19.

That includes Planet Fitness, which has more than 1,800 locations. As CEO Chris Rondeau said in a March press release, “The outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. has significantly disrupted our business as well as everyday life.”

Bish said he feels fortunate to own what he called a “boutique” gym, which generally makes up for its smaller membership numbers with a stronger sense of community and loyalty. He said thanks to a flexible landlord, his government loans and those devoted customers, he believes Title Boxing can make it through at least to next spring.

“And we’re going to fight and claw and scream and do whatever we can to do that,” he said. “You do that because, emotionally, you feel like you have to, right? … Just the importance of what it does for so many people, I’ll do everything I can.

“We feel like we have a puncher’s chance now.”

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