Balancing fitness and public health: Louisville gyms to reopen with safety measures

Pre covid-19, Yoga on Baxter was a place where you could come after a long day of work or on a weekend afternoon to clear your mind with stretching, sweating and mindfulness. Owner Kristi Fulkerson hopes her studio continues to be a refuge from daily worries when it reopens on June 1 with an exhaustive list of safety precautions.

“Today I woke up to everybody wrapping their heads around what this is going to be when we do reopen,” said Fulkerson, who spoke to LEO last Monday. “So, I wanted to get kind of ahead of it and let everybody know that I’ve been proactive about everything.”

All Kentucky gyms have the go-ahead to open on the first of June. The reopening date is a relief for operators of fitness centers who have lost clients during the shutdown, either because they could not offer their usual services or because their customers were laid off and could not afford to continue.

Yet, reopening brings its own set of problems, including figuring out how to keep clients safe. How do you make money with smaller class sizes? How do you afford the rent when you’re using your space less and generating less income?

Fulkerson, who started her studio in 2007, estimates she’s spent $800 to $1,000 on touchless soap, hand sanitizer and towel dispensers; a UV sanitizing lamp; screens, so she can keep her doors open; and fans, so that she can circulate the studio’s air outside. She also plans to mist clients with sanitizing spray as they filter in, check their temperatures with a thermometer gun and direct everyone to designated spots on the floor, which will be 6 feet apart and marked with tape.

Gov. Andy Beshear has issued Healthy at Work guidelines for Kentucky fitness centers, which address social distancing, cleaning and personal protective equipment requirements. Like restaurants, gyms must operate at 33% capacity in their first stage of reopening, and as with tables, stationary gym equipment must be six feet apart. In group classes, more space is required: 10 feet between people, and only up to 10 people at a time are allowed to participate. Also to ensure social distancing, fitness centers are not allowed to operate saunas, water fountains, high-contact team sports areas (such as basketball and racquetball courts) and child service areas. Employees and customers are required to wear masks and, as with all businesses that are reopening, sanitization and temperature checks by and for employees is required.

Returning, but to smaller classes

Patrick Smalley is lucky in that, during the shutdown, he didn’t lose any of his clients that go to his small, personal training gym in the Mellwood Art Center.

But, the real struggles are coming once he opens Tian Personal Training back up. The extra money he has to spend on sanitizing supplies, the possibility of smaller class sizes and a hefty state sales tax that started cutting into Smalley’s profits two years ago are all causing him to worry that he might have to eventually raise his rates. 

“That’s kind of hard for me to do that,” he said. “People have been supporting for me for all this time, and it’s like, you all didn’t do anything wrong, but at the same time…” He trailed off. 

Smalley usually offers one-on-one and small group training. Since closing the gym, he has been teaching online classes. His client of five years, Linda Spielberg, 57, appreciates the opportunity to continue to work out with her trainer, but she’s eager to get back into the physical gym. 

“We have been doing Zoom workouts, but it’s just not the same,” said Spielberg, who started going to Smalley to regain her strength after a bout with breast cancer. “I mean, it is because you hear his voice, but he’s not watching you the way he’s watching you in the class. So, you know, it’s easy for you to go fast, because he’s timing you fast, but not watch your form. You know, he’s not on you every minute. And I just can’t wait to get it back.”

Smalley is equally as eager to return to in-person classes. He agrees that it’s easier to observe and correct his clients’ form, but he also misses seeing and talking with them.

“I’m not going to lie, during this time, even for myself, my clients are almost like an extended family,” he said. 

Spielberg does have a lung condition that puts her at risk for COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, she’s been avoiding trips outside of her home. “But, I almost feel like I’m willing to risk myself to go back because it means so much to me. He’s just so motivating,” said Spielberg, referring to Smalley. “And I need that right now. I think we all need that right now.”

Plus, she said she feels safe at Tian Personal Training. Smalley plans on mandating temperature checks for clients, limiting how many people can be in the lobby at one time and requiring 6 feet of distance between everyone. He’s also considering shortening class times from an hour to 45 minutes to allow for 15 minutes of cleaning in between each session. 

“I think he’s going to go above and beyond to sanitize everything and abide by the rules, because that’s just the type of person he is,” Spielberg said. “And it’s also a very small intimate place, and the workout group that goes there is like a family.  And I know he cares for everybody and wants them to be able to come back.”

But, apprehension still lingers for Smalley. “If one client is sick, how are the other clients going to respond?” he asked. “Are they going to want to come back?” And, he worries about a resurgence of the virus in winter.  “It’s going to be hard for me to close my doors for another two months,” he said.

Fitness trainer Patrick Smalley with his client Shari Klose.

Going Outside 

The solution to reopening Rob Bratcher’s Shelby Park gym, while still keeping his customers safe, lies in the past. 

When Bratcher opened his “adventure training” gym BAREfit with the motto “make the world your playground” in 2013, much of its small-group training was done outside. (Disclosure: I have been attending BAREfit for over a year.)

Starting June 1, Bratcher, who is 37, will be taking BAREfit’s classes back to local parks instead of holding them in the space he rents. 

On one hand, it goes with the brand a little bit, trying to train outdoors,” said Bratcher, “And then the second part of it, of course, is that we felt that we could more, I guess it’s more sufficiently social distance outdoors.”

Plus, he’s heard the governor and others talk about the risk of transmission being lower outside. Under Beshear’s fitness center requirements, outdoor group classes are encouraged.

Bratcher plans on limiting class sizes to eight people and giving each person their own equipment to use during each session. Afterward and before, that equipment will be sanitized. Bratcher still plans on offering Zoom classes, too, which his gym has been streaming since the pandemic shut down in-person classes. 

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Transitioning to outside and online classes also means that Bratcher is stuck with rent for a building he’s not using, but he said he’s working on a solution with his landlord.

If the pandemic had struck a year ago, Bratcher said he’s not sure if BAREfit could have survived. But, in that year, he’s been able to build the business up to a point where it’s more stable. He knows of three gyms, though, that have already had to close because of COVID. One was local: Powerhouse Gym on Shelbyville Road.

Bratcher acknowledges that opening gyms back up on June 1 is a balancing act between keeping businesses like his open and ensuring the health and safety of the public. 

“But I would say, when you measure the two things together, I’m not opposed to the decision,” he continued. “But I think I’m still going to, as a responsible business owner, I’m going to try to go above and beyond what’s required, because we’re obviously going to want to try to balance the economics with the safety as best we possibly can.”

Opening The Y

With reopening, the YMCA of Greater Louisville had to figure out how to make 12 wellness facilities with workout rooms, indoor tracks and pools, safe for its estimated 80,000 members.

CEO Steve Tarver thinks he’s done that with an extensive list of safety measures, which are all posted to the YMCA’s website. “I think, based on the information we have, I’m very proud of what our staff has done in terms of the prudence for caring for people’s safety, and safety has been our guide,” he said. 

Family pools, saunas, towel service, basketball and racquetball courts will remain closed indefinitely, while group fitness classes (and child care for Indiana facilities) are expected to resume June 15. Most everything else will open with extra sanitation and social distancing measures in place on June 1. There are exceptions: YMCA’s Middletown and Bullitt County facilities have no opening date, and its Indiana facilities will open earlier on May 26. 

In the meantime, the YMCA’s virtual training classes will continue as they have been throughout the shutdown. Other safety measures, in addition to the state’s requirements, include touch-free check in, a reservation system and protective barriers at kiosks and desks. The YMCA also plans to limit capacity in its wellness centers based on square footage and availability of equipment and sanitizer bottles. Other YMCAs that have opened across the country have not exceeded their new capacities, Tarver said. 

The safety measures that the YMCA has set are not necessarily the safety measures you’ll see when the facilities reopen. Tarver is prepared to adjust the Y’s strategy if new guidelines come from Beshear or Gov. Eric Holcomb in Indiana.

“I think it’s important to understand that everyone is learning and reacting to what they learn,” said Tarver. “And we do anticipate that things will continue to change, hopefully in a more engaging way. But nobody’s interested in a second wave of these closures.”

The shutdown has significantly impacted the YMCA financially, said Tarver. Around 10% of the nonprofit’s members pre COVID-19 have stopped contributing, and it’s had to shut its child care centers to nonessential workers.

The reopening won’t fully help, either. The cost of the extra safety measures will pinch the YMCA’s recovery, Tarver said. So, he’s asking for more than just the ability to let members back in: support from the federal government if they pass more coronavirus relief measures.

The YMCA describes itself as “so much more than a gym,” so when its existence is threatened, so are its Safe Place services and its shelter for men who are homeless. Tarver thinks that’s why 80% to 90% of its members have continued to support the YMCA, even though its services have been mostly relegated to online. 

“As somebody said just this morning on a call when they were thanking the Y for what they’re doing, their comment was, it’s not just because of our physical activity, it’s because of the human connection and the feeling of family and community that the Y has,” said Tarver, “and so we’re honored by that, and we hold that in very high regard.”

Permanently Changed 

Not everyone plans on returning to the gym, and many fitness centers say the shutdown may have changed their business plans permanently. Caroline Kaufmann, who has been attending virtual Yoga on Baxter classes for several weeks, doesn’t think she’ll transition to studio sessions until a vaccine is approved.

“It looks to me like Kristi is doing amazing things for the reopening, like she’s really on top of it, and all the measures that she’s taking look great to me,” Kaufmann said. But, she said she doesn’t feel comfortable being around other people who are sweating.

Kaufmann, who is 43, said she wants to be able to have the freedom to visit her niece and mom who are immunocompromised, too. As such, she also plans on continuing to work from home (she’s a lawyer) and order takeout from restaurants, even as businesses across the state open up.

But, Fulkerson has been offering Zoom yoga classes since her studio had to close, and she plans to continue to broadcast them to members, likely indefinitely. The YMCA and BAREfit intend on doing more online in the future, too. Fulkerson said, “I bought a camera system and everything, so that way we can grow our community base outside of the physical building.”

That’s great news for Kaufmann. “Oh my god, if she does —” said Kaufmann. “I was going to email her, and tell her that if she would be willing to do that, I’ll probably buy a membership. It’s that important to me, I think it’s so great.”

Eventually, Kaufmann said she could see herself going back to in-person classes.  “Having the other people around you helps, you know, there’s just a different vibe,” she said. “It provides some accountability, and it’s just nice. So, I will do that, but for the foreseeable future, it looks like I’ll be doing my classes at home.”

What’s Lost 

Fulkerson’s revenue dropped by half when she had to shut Yoga on Baxter down to in-person classes at 5 p.m. on March 18 — the last day she could legally remain open. 

She started streaming classes, and while she gained Kaufmann’s business, some of her former clients weren’t interested. Reopening will bring new costs and possibly reduced studio capacity, but Fulkerson thinks it’ll be worth it as her wayward customers return. It will still be a struggle, however, to get back the 15% of Fulkerson’s business that comes from walk-in clients.

It could take a year for her to stabilize her business, she said. Over one year ago, she changed her business plan in order to grow the studio. “It took me a year or more, a year and a quarter to build up to where I was,” she said. “In two months, I lost all of that growth I had worked towards.”

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