March-April 2022 | Health

How the pandemic has impacted gyms

For local fitness centers, surviving the pandemic is an exercise in agility

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Caity Adams (left) instructs Valaida Wise during a personal training session at All in Fitness. Adams opened the Bethesda studio in May 2020 after being furloughed from her job at a fitness center. Photo by Skip Brown

When the pandemic forced Life Time fitness center in Gaithersburg to close temporarily in March 2020, Valaida Wise knew she needed to find a way to keep exercising. Deeply committed to the weight loss program that she began after hitting 260 pounds a few years earlier, Wise had been working out with Life Time personal trainer Caity Adams as often as four times a week.

“I was now addicted to fitness and knew how important it was because I had lost about 60 pounds and I wanted to keep going,” says Wise, now 65, who lives in Bethesda.

Wise didn’t have to worry. Adams, who was furloughed from her fitness center job, quickly began offering outdoor sessions for clients who wanted to keep working out. “My brain immediately went to: What can I do for these clients who still want to stay healthy and work toward their goals and have something they can go do safely that’s not sitting at home at their desk?” she says.

Adams packed a collapsible red wagon with assorted equipment, including weights and ropes, and met Wise and other clients for individual masked sessions in parks from Chevy Chase to Gaithersburg. She and Wise once worked out on the playground at a local elementary school. The wagon had “all these weights in it—plates, dumbbells, you name it—and I would roll it around from park to park,” Adams, now 25, says.

“I literally did not miss a week,” says Wise, who prefers powerlifting. “Except for heavy rain—you have to understand, rain and my hair don’t mix—we were outside the entire time.”

Adams had worked as a personal trainer since she was 16 and had long dreamed of opening her own full-size gym that offered memberships. As the pandemic progressed, she realized it would be difficult to train people outside in colder weather and that it might be a long time before it would be safe again to work in a big gym. So she decided to shift her focus to serving individual clients and to move ahead with her plans after contacting her regulars and learning that some would be comfortable exercising inside. In May 2020, she opened All in Fitness, a personal training, nutrition and wellness studio in downtown Bethesda. Allowing only one client in the studio at a time, Adams trains up to 20 weekly, including Wise, who works out five days a week.

Adams, who was investing her own money to pay the rent and buy equipment, worried about taking the plunge. She knew the pandemic could upend her plans at any time. “I was rolling the dice and risking losing my 401(k), because if we were to be shut down, I would have been in trouble,” she says. “But I went for it, it has not been shut down, and everyone has stayed safe. Don’t get me wrong. This pandemic is awful. But it was a driving force for me to start the business because had it not hit at that time, I likely would still be at the gym. I saw it as an opportunity, and it worked out.”

Two years after the arrival of COVID-19, Grace Studios in downtown Silver Spring is still trying to rebuild its clientele, with about half as many students attending in-person classes in yoga, Pilates and strength building as before the pandemic. “We definitely are not at the level that we were before,” owner Michelle Radecki says.

The pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020 and the ensuing months of changing government guidance over how to keep patrons safe upon reopening has left many gyms and fitness centers scrambling to stay in business. IHRSA, the Global Health & Fitness Association, says data collected during 2020 and 2021 shows that government-mandated shutdowns and operating restrictions have had a devastating financial impact on the U.S. fitness industry. Of the more than 40,000 fitness facilities that were open in the U.S. in 2019, over 20% had closed their doors by July 2021, according to the 2021 IHRSA Media Report: Part 2. In Maryland, 25% of fitness centers have closed, while 26% have been shuttered in Washington, D.C., and 18% in Virginia, according to IHRSA.

Many of those that have survived so far initially pivoted to providing fitness classes and training on social media or through various online platforms. When allowed to reopen in late spring of 2020, facility staff had to reconsider the use of their spaces and navigate state and local health requirements to provide a safe environment for clients willing to return. Wearing masks, taking temperatures and frequently sanitizing equipment and workout spaces became routine.

With small class sizes, Pure Barre in Rockville helps students to social distance. Photo by Skip Brown

For in-person classes at Grace Studios, following COVID safety protocols means allowing just 10 students per class in a room that holds 30, says Radecki, who notes that staff open screened windows to improve air flow. Air purifiers have been installed, and employees clean after every class. Teachers, students and staff are required to provide proof of vaccination. “We have a thermometer that’s mounted to the wall that checks your temperature on the way in,” she says. Masks are required, though there have been times when county health protocols allowed students to remove them during class, “which is a big deal when you’re sweating and huffing and puffing.”

Meanwhile, Grace continues to offer alternatives to in-person instruction such as live-streamed classes, the occasional outdoor class, and recorded sessions that are restricted to members. “I’m hopeful for the future,” Radecki says. “I feel like we are going to, in the end, make it out of this. The whole industry is having to adapt and change, and we’ll continue to do what we can to make the experience appropriate for the times.”

In October 2021, CorePower Yoga opened a new hot yoga studio in Rockville’s Congressional Plaza, about a year and a half later than planned. “When everything got shut down, all of that was halted, and I think there was even some talk of whether we would open this location at all,” studio manager Janna Critz says. “Ultimately we decided to move forward with it.”

Although the process of opening a studio usually starts four months in advance, “we did it in pretty much a month,” Critz says. “So it was a whirlwind, but we did it.”

CorePower joined an Orangetheory Fitness studio that had opened in September in the plaza’s FITRow, a concept that houses three separate fitness studios under one roof, according to Federal Realty, which owns the shopping center. A Pure Barre studio in Rockville’s Twinbrook area relocated to FITRow in January.

The opening of the three studios marks a rebound of sorts for some area fitness businesses. Liz Overmann, Orangetheory Fitness’ vice president of operations for the Maryland region, recalls the “few wild days” of March 2020, when the group that owns several of the Orangetheory franchises in Maryland had to temporarily close its studios, including those in Gaithersburg, Clarksburg, Olney and Potomac, because of the pandemic shutdown. “The panic was kind of palpable in the area, where people just started feeling really afraid,” Overmann says.

Only two employees of the ownership group—Overmann and Regional Marketing Director Courtney Check—kept their jobs. “We had to lay off 160, close to 170 employees” with “so much unknown” about how long the shutdown would last, Overmann says. “We went 2½ months with zero revenue.”

During the shutdown, customers at home could use an existing Orange-theory app to work out. The company also “fast-tracked” Orangetheory Live, an online platform offering live classes produced by individual studios, which rolled out in Maryland in September 2020, according to Overmann.

When the state allowed gyms and fitness centers to reopen in May 2020, the ownership group delayed until June 29. “We had to rehire. We took the time to retrain [staff in] all of our processes, in addition to adding extra layers for our COVID protocols” that were based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Overmann says. “That was our primary focus: reeducation for our staff to make sure they were safe, they felt safe and then they could create a safe environment for our members when they were ready to come back in person.”

Reducing capacity was “very easy” because Orangetheory customers are assigned their own station and equipment for workouts, Overmann says. As the studios continue to follow state and local health guidelines, class sizes are now averaging about 16 people in spaces that formerly served more than 40 customers at a time.

At its newer locations around the country, like the one in Rockville, CorePower has switched from traditional to infrared heat for classes and no longer pumps humidity into its studios, Critz says. Thirty minutes has been added between classes to allow the air to clear. Wearing masks in the hot studio has been the “biggest adjustment,” and the heat level has been reduced to keep everyone comfortable, Critz says.

After classes, studio staff follow protocols that require sanitizing the front desk and all equipment. Critz says students can get a membership discount for helping to clean the studio for one 90-minute shift weekly. “We kind of, as a team, had to really pull together to clean,” she says.

PureFire Yoga in downtown Bethesda had only been open about 18 months when it was forced to close in March 2020. The hot yoga studio provided classes for about 40 students at a time in 95-degree heat and 40% humidity—conditions that aren’t easy to replicate at home. “We finally created a community that heard about us, loves us, [was] very supportive and attending our classes and supporting our teachers,” owner Marcus Lee says. “Then the pandemic hit.”

As the shutdown continued, Lee says he and his staff couldn’t help but notice that everyone they knew was constantly online. “So we decided to offer free classes via Facebook Live on our Facebook page to our community and really anybody who wanted to tune in,” Lee says. “So that was one of the ways we stayed connected to the community.”

Some customers who participated online and wanted to create hot yoga conditions at home would set up a space heater and a humidifier in a bathroom or a closet where they could trap heat, he says. The studio was able to continue offering free online classes until it reopened in the summer of 2020 because a “significant number” of “loyal” clients kept paying for their memberships, he says.

When it was time to open the studio, Lee says the space had to be rearranged to serve just eight students where capacity was 41 in order to meet social distancing requirements. Before the pandemic, the studio would keep its doors closed to trap the heat needed for the hot yoga classes. After reopening, “we would open our doors and open the windows,” Lee says. “So we weren’t really a hot yoga studio at that particular time. We were more like a warm studio.”

During the pandemic, Lee also had to deal with the additional stress and disruption of relocating because the building that was home to the studio was scheduled for redevelopment. He says friends at Barre3 on Cordell Avenue offered to let PureFire hold classes there while a larger new facility with two studios that will meet COVID protocols for airflow is under construction nearby.
“This has been such an interesting, painful roller coaster of a ride to get back to a starting point, though the starting point looks a little different,” Lee says.

Fitness instructor Krista Mason, who switched to Zoom classes at the beginning of the pandemic, mostly still teaches virtually. Photo by Skip Brown

When Kimberly Lizardo had to rely on online classes for her 50-minute Pure Barre workout during those early months of the pandemic, she found she just wasn’t as motivated to exercise as she was when she had gone to the studio in Twinbrook three or four times a week. She missed the sense of community. “It was just a really happy, positive place to work out,” she says.

Watching online at home, she’d work out in her kitchen and use the back of a chair as a substitute for the ballet barre in the studio, but it wasn’t the same. “The second that they offered in-person classes, I signed up,” says Lizardo, 35, who lives in North Bethesda.

When Jill DeNinno reopened her two Pure Barre studios in late June 2020, she and her staff mapped out boxes on the floor so students could socially distance, reducing class sizes from more than 20 students to eight or fewer, which has created financial challenges. “We’re still going,” she says. “I try to stay very positive about everything. I know it’s going to come back eventually. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take until we get to the other side of this.”

Lizardo says that when she went back to DeNinno’s Twinbrook studio she noticed that the class size had decreased “drastically,” with sometimes as few as three students. “I never once felt unsafe,” says Lizardo, who enjoys having an opportunity to socialize after working remotely at home as a pharmacist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We all learned to smile with our eyes because we’d be working out with our masks on,” she says.

“Our clients have been so wonderful,” DeNinno adds. “We have been very lucky. We have not had too much pushback from anybody complaining one way or the other.”

Whether they are online or in person, DeNinno and other fitness instructors say they’ve had to revise their teaching styles to rely more on verbal instruction and less on hands-on help to make sure students are moving properly. “What we’ve done for the virtual classes is add in a lot more vocal cues to get people into proper form while they’re working out at home,” DeNinno says. “For those classes, we’re talking a lot more.”

PureFire Yoga teachers quickly realized they had to adjust the way they taught once they were back in the studio, especially for a hybrid class in which some students are in person and others are online, Lee says. “All of our teachers are used to walking around the room assisting and seeing the class at different vantage points. We’re able to see better when we’re able to walk around the room,” he says. Now, “we’re in a fixed spot. We’re literally on a mat with the cameras on us where we’re able to see the students [in the studio]—and we don’t leave this space.”

Before the pandemic, fitness instructor Krista Mason used to spend her days driving to Silver Spring, Bethesda and Chevy Chase to teach 22 weekly classes at four different studios and also serve private and corporate clients. “I would just run around all over the place all day long,” says Mason, who was paid per class.

When it became clear that the studios would be closing, Mason says she “immediately pivoted” by purchasing a Zoom account—though she’d never heard of the online platform before the pandemic began. She emailed her list of students to see if they’d be interested in trying a virtual class and offered her first two online sessions the next morning.

To create a home studio, she asked her teenage son to paint a wall of a sunroom in her Washington, D.C., fixer-upper. In the coming months, she would work on perfecting her online system, moving from teaching through her phone to a web camera and developing a payment system, all while managing a schedule of classes. “It was a lot,” Mason says. “I don’t want to go back to the summer of 2020 ever again.”

Mason says her desktop computer is hooked up to a 50-inch TV in her home studio. “I can see my students really well,” she says. “Ninety-five percent of my students keep their cameras on, so it really feels like a class, and I can actually see my students better in my Zoom studio than I can in my normal class.”

Since going virtual, Mason says she’s seen students on Zoom who didn’t regularly attend in person, and some who had come to her classes at local fitness centers years ago. “They are definitely showing up to their classes more often than they used to,” she says.

Two years into the pandemic, Mason says she plans to stick primarily with her online studio. She’s gone back to teaching just a couple of classes in person, but she has noticed how much better she feels now that she no longer has to physically help students move their bodies into the correct positions during classes. “It’s been great for me,” Mason says. “It’s something I would never have done, honestly. I would never have thought to try an online studio, and I have really, really liked it.”

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and is a contributing editor to the magazine.