Big Box Gyms Get Creative During COVID-19

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Virtual classes, clean facilities, safe equipment and the heightened awareness of the health benefits of working out have become the lure that is getting gym members back into the building. Gyms did not make the list of essential businesses according to DC government mandates and, even if they had, members feared the possibility of contracting the virus. Now that they are open again, Capitol Hill gyms have been forced to become more innovative to attract members.

All three big box gym on the Hill are holding classes – in parking lots, parks, on a pool deck or on Zoom. All three have also upped their cleaning protocols to insure the equipment and facility remain virus-free. All three say they are compliant with all DC mandates. Their steam rooms, showers and locker rooms are not open at this time and they all are adhering to the physical distance requirements and the mask mandate for equipment use and class participation.

“Capitol Hill Sport & Health is fortunate,” said Change Yi, general manager. “Our capacity based on square footage and DC mandates gives us a large capacity for our big space. We don’t need to ask members to reserve gym time.”

Both Balance and Vida Fitness require reservations to book a workout. “We require a member to download an app that monitors which members are in the gym at any given time,” said Antoine Robinson, general manager at Vida Fitness in the Navy Yard. “That’s where you book your time slot for our outdoor classes (held on the Penthouse pool deck or in the park at the Dept. of Transportation. At Balance gym Devin Maier, co-CEO, said, “If a member wants to access the gym he/she must book in advance a 75-minute time slot. We shut down the area in between for 15 minutes to clean. It helps us manage the size of groups coming in and cuts down exposure and makes it easier if we have to do any contact tracing.”

Balance Members run on a treadmill masked and socially distanced.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Anyone else remember that saying? This old adage stresses the importance and moral correctness of keeping your body and home clean. The sentiment might have become lost in the pre-pandemic times, but that has changed.  Cleanliness has become a requirement for any public place these days, especially a gym.

All three managers I spoke to agreed that cleanliness is the ticket to giving members confidence to come in. Vida shared its protocol for cleaning with the DC Fitness Alliance. “We use a cleaning product used at military bases, hotels and hospitals – strong and effective quickly.” said Antoine. “We also have improved our air quality. We installed air scrubbers in all common areas which recycles then kicks out fresh air. We also upgraded our filters.”

Hand sanitizers have been strategically placed and are accessible to members throughout Balance and Sport & Health. Vida’s protocol is somewhat different. Each member upon checking in gets his/her own bottle of disinfectant. “They also receive two towels – one to use for equipment and the other for themselves. We also take a member’s temperature,” said Maier.

Personal Training director Ali Register conducts a 3D body scan for a new personal training client.

“We go through the gym with an electrostatic sprayer every 15-20 minutes. All gyms have moved or designated usable equipment to be at least six feet apart. Sport & Health has created a zone-cleaning protocol requiring managers, in addition to cleaning staff, to clean with hospital-grade disinfectant. “This (emphasis on cleanliness) is the new standard for the health and wellness industry for the future,” said Robinson.

National Standards
It’s been a rough and sometimes frustrating road for the fitness business. According to a November study by ClubIntel of 2,000 U.S. gym members, “fifty-four percent of those surveyed either froze or canceled their memberships.” By September when more than 87 percent of fitness clubs across the U.S. had reopened “60 percent of members hadn’t returned to gyms and 20 percent stopped exercising altogether.” IHRSA (The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association) estimated 15 percent of gyms have closed permanently. The virus also highlighted the increased vulnerability of those who have underlying conditions such as obesity which can triple the risk of hospitalization if contracted.

The managers are hopeful. “The pandemic has shown people how important staying healthy is,” said Maier. “It also has shown the significance of enhancing the connection between your mind, body and emotions.” A documented increased interest nationally in meditation since the pandemic illustrates this awareness.

“We did not have your typical New Year’s rush this year,” said Yi. “Slowly but surely membership is picking up. We are on an upward trend.”  Whether it’s because of the vaccine availability, the realization that exercise is key to staying well or that people are just getting stir-crazy staying at home, Capitol Hill gyms are seeing a rise in attendance. All are looking forward to getting back closer to normal by this summer.

Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional and journalist who has been writing her column for more than 20 years. She focuses on non-traditional ways to stay healthy and get well. Book a call with Pattie for a health/fitness evaluation, learn practical ways to boost immune systems and de-stress. Please email her with questions or column suggestions at: [email protected] or text: 202-329-5514.