While it may seem unfathomable to those in New York and other COVID-19 epicenters, where the virus continues to infect thousands and keep everyone on full lockdown, many lesser-affected cities and states are beginning to reopen their economies. This means that, in addition to non-essential businesses like restaurants, bars, malls, and doctors’ offices, gyms and fitness studios in certain parts of the United States are now returning to some sense of normal operations. After months of milk-carton weight-lifting and jumping jacks that annoy downstairs neighbors, most folks are eager to get back to their fully equipped gyms and pricey spinning classes. But with a vaccine still months (if not years) away and the threat of a second outbreak looming in the not-so-distant future, many consumers want to know what health and safety measures their exercise destinations will implement in order to keep coronavirus at bay.
In a recent survey from fitness-booking platform ClassPass, two out of three Americans said that they would be likely to return to their gyms and studios within the first month of reopening, but it seemed that decision would be contingent on studio sanitation routines and smaller class sizes. With this sentiment in mind, fitness industry players big and small have started releasing plans for reopening—complete with new and increased standards for social distancing and cleaning—since the first few states began lifting restrictions and stay-at-home orders in late April.
The New Normal at High-End Gyms and Studios
In an email sent to members on May 8, Equinox Executive Chairman, Harvey Spevak, shared details of the high-end gym chain’s thinking. “Over the past several weeks, we established a task force, including our team of medical and infectious disease experts, who have been working tirelessly on a comprehensive reopening plan that builds upon Equinox’s already recognized high standards of health, safety, and cleanliness,” it read.
The message laid out the new “Equinox Standard,” a collection of temporary and permanent measures that every location will implement upon reopening. The plan includes a more rigorous cleaning process, whereby gyms will be disinfected three times a day and once overnight; a health declaration that certifies members are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms before their visit; and a temporary pause on all showers, steam rooms, saunas, pools, spas, Kids Clubs, basketball courts, and team sports areas. Members will be required to use hand sanitizer upon entry and are encouraged to make use of the newly installed hand sanitizer stations and equipment disinfectant wipes now available throughout the gym during their workouts. They also must undergo temperature checks, wear face coverings at all times in the club, and observe physical distancing by way of floor markings and other visual cues.
What really sets Equinox’s reopening guidelines apart from other fitness destinations’, though, is its strategy to limit capacity. While class-based workout studios, like SoulCycle and Orange Theory, can adhere to states’ reduced capacity rules by restricting the number of people who can sign up for a workout, there’s much less of a clear path for traditional gyms. Equinox, however, will require members to book visits through the app, allowing them to schedule up to three 90-minute sessions per week with the option for additional sessions on a standby basis. The company’s approach seems to hold more hope for actually upholding social distancing than other gyms, where the only things capped are group fitness classes, but some Equinox members are beginning to question whether three workouts a week are really worth the pricey monthly dues ($185 for one club and up to $500 for access to all locations globally).
SoulCycle, which is owned by Equinox, sent a similar email to its customers in early May, outlining its new cleaning process and safety standards. The spinning-class giant will disinfect common areas before and after check-ins and the studio after every class and will require its staff members to wear gloves. Check-in will be hands-free, and high-touch amenities, like showers, razors, q-tips, and phone charging will be unavailable for the time being. Although all bikes will remain in the room, only those at a safe distance apart will be available to book, and floor markers will indicate safe distancing as riders enter and exit class. Unlike Equinox, though, SoulCycle is not asking its members to wear any face masks or protection themselves but encourages riders to “go above and beyond for each other,” including waiting outside the studio ahead of class and limiting in-person contact like hugs and high-fives.
Orangetheory Fitness, another class-based chain with more than 1,000 locations in the United States, has also set new standards for its studios. Orangetheory will limit class capacity according to national and local government mandates and will assign members to every other rower, treadmill, or weights station to adhere to social distancing. As a general rule, classes will be limited to the number of stations in a studio (between 10 and 20), each traditionally shared by two or three members over the course of the class, so that every member has his own equipment. Protective gear, like masks and gloves, will be required of all staff members and coaches, and members are asked to wear a mask before and during class. Additionally, members will have their temperatures scanned using a temporal thermometer before entering the studio, and they must complete a verbal checklist certifying they’ve experienced no symptoms of COVID-19. Equipment will be disinfected between every class, and entire studios will be disinfected nightly. As a franchise model, Orangetheory cannot explicitly mandate protocol and must instead treat the new health and safety measures as recommendation to franchisees, but as some locations have begun reopening, it seems that these standards have been upheld.
Putting It To The Test
Most gyms and fitness studios have at least begun thinking about reopening at this point, if they have not in fact already published guidelines like these, but the real test lies in practice. As those in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and a handful of other states have reopened their doors in recent days and welcomed members back onto the ellipticals and rowing machines they once knew so well, it’s offered a first glimpse into how new health and safety measures will actually work in reality.
On May 22, Equinox reopened four of its five clubs in Texas, showing what life under the new rules would look like. Many members were thrilled to hear of their gyms’ return and eagerly signed up for the first few time slots available. “I felt like I left a piece of me there and couldn’t wait to go back,” says Michael Peter Delbosque, a small business owner and Equinox member in Houston. “If the gym had been decontaminated to the level they promised, I wanted to be one of the first in.” When he did return, after an online sign-up process that wasn’t exactly difficult but was “more challenging than usual,” he felt that the new Equinox Standard outlined in Spevak’s email a week earlier was definitely upheld: masks were worn, temperatures were taken upon entry, equipment was spaced out, and social distancing was enforced. Even as Delbosque felt good about his health and safety there, though, he found that the new experience didn’t quite live up to pre-pandemic days. “What I loved about Equinox was the total experience of how the staff made you feel good about yourself and all the amenities I used to take pride in,” Delbosque says. “I hope things go back to normal soon because cleanliness was really never an issue there.”
But others, like Anita Brown, a makeup artist and Equinox member in Dallas, felt the precautionary measures were well worth it and in fact what make the gym worth its high price tag. “I’ve been extremely cautious and careful these past few months, but when Governor Abbott allowed gyms to reopen, I knew Equinox would have strict protocols in place,” she says. After reading the gym’s new guidelines, Brown was confident she could go back feeling good about her health and safety, and upon visiting the club on its reopening day, she felt even more assured. “The guidelines were laid out and met all of our expectations, and everyone was respectful, so I hope it continues and we are able to keep using the facility safely,” she notes. “Equinox has always gone above and beyond—that’s why we pay so much for the experience.”
When SoulCycle similarly reopened its first few locations in Texas, Victoria Gonzales knew she had to be at her Dallas studio for the reopening. “Classes usually hold about 50 people, and even then, you have to book a week in advance,” she says. “So, I knew it was going to be difficult to get a bike now that they were limiting classes to just eight people.” Since the Dallas location was offering free rides for the first two days of its reopening, Gonzales decided to pay the extra fee to snag a bike before bookings were available to the public, but she wouldn’t necessarily do the same once regular pricing comes back into effect. “When there are fewer bikes, the early option with the additional fee is basically the only way to get in, but the normal price per class is almost $40, already a lot,” she says. When it came time for her class, Gonzales had her temperature taken at the door, checked-in via app, and had to accept a liability waiver citing she had not come into contact with anyone with Covid-19 and that she would not hold SoulCycle liable if she were to contract the disease.
But, like so many others, Gonzales was worried that with these new safety standards, SoulCycle wouldn’t be the same. “The thing that makes it so fun and different from other places is the community aspect—the high fives, the group atmosphere—and I was worried that would be lost,” she explains. Though it was weird to be one of only a few people in a room usually filled with dozens, she felt the instructor’s electricity made up for it, even from the small perch he was now chained to. “Overall, I had a great class, and it was such a fun time,” Gonzales says. “I feel like SoulCycle took the precautions necessary, but I will say, I think the instructors now have an increased burden to create the same SoulCycle feeling without as many souls in the room.”
It seems only natural to assume that adherence to these new health and safety standards will remain strong in the days and weeks immediately after reopening. But a larger question looms over whether members and staff alike will continue to comply as more time passes or if, like so many have with quarantine and social distancing measures in the last three months, people will grow tired of the extra effort it takes to ensure their own wellbeing and that of others.
— to www.forbes.com