What going to the gym will look like after the COVID-19 outbreak

The wait for your summer body may be delayed (or canceled in some places), but that doesn’t mean the return to the gym won’t be soon.

The days of 5-minute abs videos before daily Zoom meetings or squeezing in at-home pushups before homeschooling the children appear to be coming to an end soon, as gyms around the country prepare to be some of the first nonessential business to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Trump recently reveled the “Phase One” guidelines for reopening the economy – which would allow places like restaurants, movie theaters, places of worship, and even gyms – to open its doors based on rigorous social distancing measures to keep things safe. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was the first to allow gyms to reopen in late April, which received criticism from some as positive coronavirus cases recently topped one million in the United States.

Oklahoma is preparing to allow gyms, retail stores, and other establishments to re-open by May 1, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pumped the breaks on reopening fitness centers due to safety concerns despite some businesses reopening later this week.

As Americans prepare for life and routine to return after the COVID-19 outbreak, there will be a new normal to how we approach our day, from handshakes and mannerisms to occupancy and crowd control. These changes are expected to happen at fitness centers and boutiques everywhere imminently, and it bears asking, will COVID-19 change the way we approach fitness in the future?

In your neighborhood

For Retro Fitness CEO Andrew Alfano, it’s taking a family approach.

Alfano took charge of the mom-and-pops fitness empire in 2019. He has more than 130 franchises to worry about throughout the country and at the top of his worry list is his franchisees, the small business owners picked from the neighborhoods where Retro Fitness places its weights and the members who pack its locations.

He made two decisions at the beginning of March when the COVID-19 pandemic forced non-essential businesses to shutter: freezing all memberships and waiving all of his franchisees’ fees including royalties.

“The family atmosphere we have at Retro Fitness goes well beyond the four walls of the brick-and-mortar of the club,” Alfano told Ladders about his decision. “But how we’re supporting our franchisees is no different than how we’re supporting our members during this time.”

Retro Fitness CEO Andrew Alfano
Retro Fitness CEO Andrew Alfano

What larger gyms will look like is anyone’s guess, Alfano said. He’s prepared Retro Fitness’ franchisees with weekly, system-wide phone calls with franchisees outlining both the best practices now and in the future. Alfano said his team was closely monitoring the reopening in Georgia despite Retro Fitness not having an outpost in the state.

As some places like Disney have toyed with the idea of checking visitors’ temperatures before entering its parks, Alfano’s approach prioritizes on the health and safety of both employees and members. With Retro Fitness outposts in many states, the company plans to comply with state and local governments, which will determine when Retro’s outposts reopen.

One of the biggest unknowns surrounding gyms and other public businesses is occupancy. With social distancing mandating people stand six-feet apart from each other, how does that apply to a gym where space is often limited and equipment is often touched repeatedly? Alfano explained that he’s preparing for limits on occupancy such as having 100-square-feet between each person or every other cardio machine being closed in order to create additional space.

“We’re also preparing for what if a husband and wife come in and they want to work out with each other. Is there really a reason for them not to be next to each other on a cardio machine since they were next to each other on the couch the night before?” he said.

Alfano said he’s created a reopening “playbook” for his franchisees which includes mandates and best practices for keeping things clean. In order for Retro Fitness’ clubs to re-open, each must be certified by corporate prior to opening its doors. Employees will attend a COVID-19 webinar to learn best practices moving forward and pledges will be displayed at every club or franchisee on the windows for consumers to see.

“For the industry, a misstep by anyone of us – any member, any employee – can be really detrimental not only just to the brand, but to the industry in general,” Alfano said.

What about boutique fitness?

In many of America’s favorite boutique fitness spots, space is often limited. Places like Barry’s, Orangetheory, and SoulCycle offer group workouts often maximizing space limiting the breathing room around you. For some, it’s in these tight spaces where they get their best workout — but it might not be the best practice after the coronavirus pandemic.

While companies are following the CDC’s guidelines, gyms aren’t any different from other public places where people go. The coronavirus isn’t spread through sweat, but it can be spread through workout equipment should it not be properly cleaned after use.

A CITYROW class in Ann Arbor.

For rowing studio CITYROW, there isn’t going to be a massive change due to social distancing. CITYROW founder and CEO Helaine Knapp tells Ladders that her boutiques – 11 spread across the country including two in Manhattan – were previously well situated for social distancing due to stations largely being only a rower and a mat. However, she anticipates changes in terms of capacity, especially for other fitness boutiques that often maximize space for group workouts.

“I think the days of cramming extra bodies in the room are paused,” Knapp said over the phone. “Tight spin classes and yoga classes are going to have to do a little bit more reengineering of their classes. I’m confident they’re going to do it, but there’s also a conversation to think about: can every studio survive at a lower capacity?”

CITYROW has an outpost in Georgia, but its local owners opted to not re-open when officials allowed certain businesses to do so in April, despite boutique fitness often housing fewer people inside its classes. In New York, pending how the state’s reopening phases play out, she said the company is aiming toward June for reopening, but Knapp said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach due to the consequences of reopening too soon, like no consumers showing up or public backlash.

As for the specifics of CITYROW’s reopening, it’s centered around a few components that keep in mind the safety of both clients and staff. Reduced capacity will be instilled in phase one, with classes holding less than 10 people per session. Knapp said studios opening in phase one will look to reorganize rooms in order to increase more space. Cleanliness, too, will be a top priority. Visitors will be asked to wipe their stations before and after sessions and additional time between classes will be created in order to allow a more deep cleaning, in common areas especially.

Cardio dance studio 305 Fitness will implement similar guidelines when it reopens. Its classes — which operate out of three Manhattan studios — benefit from social distancing due to participants’ not having to work with physical equipment.

While 305 Fitness was forced to furlough nearly all of its staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has forced the company to think differently during the quarantine.

In the interim, 305 Fitness has pivoted to digital means offering two daily free workouts through their YouTube channel. They’ve provided staff with resources for staffers to navigate unemployment and created a platform for team members to teach and monetize 305 Fitness classes from their own social media channels.

“We have significantly scaled back company expenses and are pursuing federal assistance loans to support us during this time. We remain confident in our ability to reopen when all of this passes,” 305 Fitness COO Sam Karshenboym told Ladders in an email.

Another change that could be coming soon is the end of cancellation policies. At popular gyms like Equinox, canceling a class exercise in three hours or fewer results in a late strike. Three strikes in one-month results in being barred from making online reservations for one week. Knapp said CITYROW will rethink its canceling strategy, which was previously a 12-to-24-hour window. She expects to be “really lenient” if people cannot make a class due to not feeling well.

Like 305 Fitness, CITYROW has found ways to engage with clients through digital content. They’ve released live CITYROW classes each week, which amounts to 80 classes per week. In addition, the company has delivered free content on its social media channels, while it’s at-home rower features on-demand classes.

While some might be hesitant to jump right into their favorite workout classes physically, Knapp said others will be banging on the doors. Either way, she’s eager to see everyone again.

“What I’m confident in saying is, when it is time for us to reopen — when you’re ready, we’re ready,” she said. “But we’re not ready.”

Kyle Schnitzer is a staff reporter at Ladders.