NEW YORK – There's little evidence of Americans' passion for fitness at the tens of thousands of small and independent gyms around the country.
Gyms, health clubs and workout studios began reopening in late spring following government-ordered shutdowns aimed at halting the coronavirus spread. But most are only allowed to have a fraction of their regular clientele onsite at one time. And some clients are staying away for fear of catching the virus.
The International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association, an industry group, estimates that gyms, health and fitness clubs lost an aggregate $13.9 billion during shutdowns as of Aug. 31. The group warns that without government help, at least a quarter could close by Dec. 31 as limits on indoor workouts continue.
Michael Hanover is lucky if he gets 45 client hours a week in his Northbrook, Illinois gym, Fitness Hero Wellness Center, down from his usual 60. He sometimes opens at 5 a.m. or stays late at night to get those hours; many clients are too uneasy to come in when other people are there.
“We don't have people pounding on the door trying to get in,” Hanover says.
In Illinois, gyms can operate at 50% of capacity, leaving Hanover with no more than 10 people onsite at any time. He feels small gyms have been lumped in unfairly with big fitness chains where there might be hundreds of people exercising at once and coming into contact with one another. He'd like to be able to bring in more clients.
Hanover's big worry: A surge in cases that might prompt officials to force gyms to go back to holding only outdoor classes and one-on-one training sessions indoors.
“It will be devastating and most likely, the end of Fitness Hero Wellness Center,” Hanover says.
Over 80% of the 40,000 to 50,000 health and fitness clubs in the U.S. are small businesses, according to the Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Whether yoga studios or fully equipped gyms, these businesses provide a livelihood to their owners. Last year, the overall industry employed 3 million trainers, instructors and other workers.
In a thriving fitness center or small gym, people run on treadmills or pedal stationary bikes nearly side by side, exercise classes are crowded and trainers work with clients just inches or a few feet apart. Following a good exercise, people tend to breathe more frequently and harder.
When it comes to the coronavirus, all those scenarios concern health officials because they can increase the spread of the respiratory droplets that carry the virus.
To allay those fears, owners follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines calling for bikes and treadmills to be spaced farther apart or unplugged so some can't be used. Equipment is disinfected after each use. Masks are required.
Owners are also installing ventilation equipment to lessen the chances of breathing in concentrated amounts of coronavirus germs. But these procedures don't reassure many people who used to work out several times a week.
Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym, sees another problem: People have found they can stay in shape without a gym by running, buying their own equipment or taking online workout classes.
“When we reopened, we assumed that about 30% of our members would never come back to a gym because they found something else, and that was pretty accurate,” says Miceli, whose gym is in Pelham, New York.
The state of New York is limiting the number of people in a gym to 33% of normal capacity. Before the pandemic, Miceli was running 140 classes a week; now it's 25. His revenue is down 70%.