February is normally a busy month in Maine’s fitness industry.
Most New Year’s resolutions are still going strong. High school athletes are training for their sports. The weather generally hinders outdoor workouts that don’t involve skis or skates.
“We’re getting busier,” said Peter Clark of Beyond Strength, a gym in Falmouth, “but it’s not anywhere near where we were before.”
The coronavirus pandemic prompted state officials to close gyms and fitness centers for nearly three months last spring. Some never reopened. Others are hanging on. Few are flourishing, given restrictions that limit indoor capacity to 50 people, and then only if sufficient spacing can be maintained.
In Clark’s six-year-old gym, for example, membership is down by more than half, from a pre-pandemic high of 160 to about 70. Under current restrictions, he said, his facility of 4,000 square feet can accommodate 10 clients at a time. Online training, restructured programs and reduced staffing all have contributed to keeping Beyond Strength afloat, as has federal funding through the Paycheck Protection Program and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
“We’re surviving and looking for a better 2021,” Clark said.
A year ago, Beyond Strength was one of 171 health clubs in Maine, according to data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. That number is lower now because some clubs have gone out of business, but the association said it’s unclear how many.
Scott Gillespie, owner of Saco Sport & Fitness since 1993, served on the association’s board of directors for four years and chaired its public policy committee. He said at year’s end, 17 percent of all health clubs nationally had closed permanently, and another 25 percent are expected to fail by the end of the first quarter of this year.
“The industry is struggling,” he said.
EVIDENCE FAVORS GYMS
Gillespie sees brighter days ahead, however. In states where contact tracing data is made public by industry, the data show rates of viral spread are low at gyms and fitness centers.
In early December, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again closed the state’s dining establishments in response to a spike in coronavirus cases, he left open gyms and fitness centers after noting that they appeared in only 0.06 percent of transmission cases statewide, below that of retail stores (0.61 percent) and restaurants/bars (1.43 percent).
In Illinois, a study of statewide outbreak locations indicated that gym, fitness and dance facilities accounted for 1.29 percent of the total. Outbreaks were defined as five or more cases linked to a common location within a 14-day period and did not include those from long-term care centers.
Gillespie said the initial assumption last spring – that gyms were high-risk environments because of heavy breathing in crowded settings – was legitimate. However, safety protocols put in place since then have largely worked as designed.
“Because of ventilation, spacing, masking and sanitation,” he said, “we now know from states that share their contact-tracing data by industry that gyms and fitness centers are lower risk than retail centers, and much lower risk than restaurants and bars.”
In late May, Gov. Janet Mills announced a delay in her reopening plan for gyms and fitness centers in light of a medical study linking 112 cases in South Korea to dance fitness instructors who attended a workshop and then infected others in their classes.
That delay prompted Gillespie to form the Maine Fitness Coalition, a group of 40 clubs from boutique studios to high-volume gyms such as Planet Fitness, which in November opened a 28,000-square-foot facility in South Portland.
“We represent a broad cross-section of the types of fitness centers that exist,” said Gillespie, who describes his Saco enterprise as a mid-market club.
The coalition hired a lobbyist, drafted guidelines for safe operation and passed them along to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Gillespie said it gave state officials a framework for understanding considerations particular to the industry. After considerable tweaking, the state published guidelines that allowed fitness centers to expand upon the May allowance of outdoor classes and one-on-one training, and most clubs reopened by mid-June.
CAPACITY STILL REDUCED
Before the November rise in cases, there was talk of bringing fitness centers in line with spacing restrictions governing retail stores, namely five people per 1,000 square feet.
“Obviously, once the spike happened, that was off the table,” said Joanna Pease, owner of Jibe Cycling Studio. “I think we’re all hopeful that the restrictions will loosen up a little bit. The main thing is that people have to feel comfortable being indoors again, and that will be on their own time.”
Pease opened her cycling studio on Free Street in Portland nearly three years ago and was up to 45 bikes last March, when she was scheduled to open a second spin room in Yarmouth. When the pandemic hit, she quickly rented out 75 bikes and developed at-home workouts. In June, she recalled the bikes and moved classes outside, where they remained into October in Portland and November in Yarmouth.
After installing Plexiglas shields between and in front of each bike, and arranging for space inside the Portland House of Music, Pease now has indoor classes at three venues. She operates 15 bikes at Free Street, 18 in Yarmouth and 25 at the House of Music, the latter for evening and weekend sessions.
Another 40 bikes continue to be rented for what she calls Jibe at Home workouts. Even so, membership is off by more than half, although with two studios, Pease has more instructors than she did before the shutdown.
Maddie Volk, the owner of Harpoon CrossFit gym in York, said one factor motivating gym-goers is that the higher the level of fitness, the less likely a bout of COVID-19 will require hospitalization. Her gym still has some clients doing outdoor morning classes, including one before the sun rises.
“I commend them for their loyalty,” she said. “It’s a testament to the desire to have camaraderie when working out.”
Even with a tightly knit client base determined to support her operation, Volk said, business is down 20 percent from last year.
According to one fitness survey, the number of active adults who relied on gym memberships as their primary means of keeping in shape dropped from one in five at the beginning of 2020 to one in 12.
Preston Peabbles, an owner of NXGen Fitness Center in Scarborough, said his gym logged 85,000 check-ins between June 17, 2019, and Jan. 29 of last winter. Over the same stretch a year later, the number had dropped to 49,178.
NXGen has 18,000 square feet of indoor space and another 4,000 outside. Peabbles said he knows of no COVID-19 transmission cases involving his gym. Similarly, Gillespie said Saco Sport & Fitness has hosted more than 60,000 workouts at its 25,000-square-foot facility without a single report of viral spread.
Already accustomed to dealing with sweaty, smelly people, Gillespie said he upgraded his ventilation system with a $100,000 investment that increased the fresh air turnover rate from once per hour to up to 20 times per hour.
Mike Cleary owns five of Maine’s 11 Planet Fitness franchises and touts his company’s 97-page reopening playbook for safe operation. He declined to share membership levels, but said that through Dec. 31, the 11 Planet Fitness locations in Maine logged more than half a million check-ins since reopening, “and not a single confirmation that there was transmission of COVID-19. That proves we’re operating very safely.”
HEALTHY OR RISKY?
Dr. Dora Anne Mills is chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center and several other hospitals and medical practices. She’s also the sister of the governor and formerly served as Maine’s top health official.
She said people should weigh the benefits of going to a gym against the risks.
“If you’re under 65, you’re otherwise healthy and you have no chronic diseases, you may say, ‘OK, going to the gym is worth that additional risk because it’s worth it for me to maintain my health and I know I’m not at high risk for severe COVID,’ ” Mills said.
For Mills, the three factors that stand out in considering any gym are ventilation, density and masking. High ceilings and a robust air exchange system are particularly helpful against a disease primarily carried by people’s breath. Additionally, because aerosols have been shown to project farther than 6 feet when someone is singing or breathing hard, make sure you can spread out.
A “superspreader” event at an Ontario spin cycle studio in October showed how easily the virus can be transmitted even when recommended safety protocols are in place, if adequate ventilation and masking while exercising are left out of the equation.
“Look at the density that’s allowed,” Mills said, “and not just what the state policy is, but what does that particular gym allow? Are they having people lined right up next to each other on the ellipticals? Or are they spread out every two or three ellipticals? The more spread out the people are, the better.”
As for mask-wearing, a statewide mandate took effect in early November. Are patrons following that protocol? Is the staff? If people are doing the chinstrap thing, or allowing masks to droop below the nose, the risk of transmission grows.
As for washing down equipment between use, Mills said that’s important, but she is less concerned about surface transmission because she can sanitize her hands and remember to avoid touching her face. Her safety is within her control.
Smaller gyms with low ceilings are inherently more risky, so adequate spacing and strict adherence to masking are even more important in those environments, she said.
“There was a time in my life when I thrived going to the gym and I could not bear to do without it,” she said. “And I would be going to the gym now if I were in that time of my life, but I’m not in that time.”
Mills said colder, drier conditions mean respiratory droplets that carry the virus stay in the air longer. Another wild card is that variants of the virus have been shown to be even more contagious.
“They will be here, if they’re not already here,” Mills said. “It’s time to be very careful, but at the same time, if people think they’re in a safe place to go to the gym, then I encourage people to go to the gym. It’s healthy otherwise. Just be aware that any way they can reduce their risk is good.”
Simply avoiding exercise carries risks of its own: depression, isolation, increased eating, increased alcohol intake, decreased activity.
“All of those are going to lead to diabetes, to cardiac disease, to strokes, to high blood pressure,” said Gillespie of Saco Sport & Fitness. “They’re going to lead to other lifestyle diseases and there’s so many who could be benefiting from our services who we simply can’t serve because of the restrictions in place.”