Small Gyms and Large Chains Make a Case as Healthy Outlets During the Pandemic


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As the public debates the role that gyms may play in the spread of COVID-19, small local fitness centers are saying that their businesses are fundamentally different than large chains, as large chains assure the safety of their members.

“Not all gyms are created equal,” said Sharon Marr, manager at UP Fitness, a privately-owned gym in Stonington. 

At the start of the pandemic, Marr said, UP Fitness had to completely change its business model. They relocated to a much smaller facility and reduced their services to private classes of 10-15 people and one-on-one personal training. During the summer, they held most of their classes outside. 

Marr said that small gyms like UP Fitness shouldn’t be conflated with the large chains, where large numbers of people could be constantly going in and out. 

“I know exactly when every single person is coming in throughout the day,” said Marr. “In a busy day for us, we might have 15 people.” 

Courtney Brooks, the owner of Saybrook Soul Sweat, a hot yoga studio located in Old Saybrook, agrees. She said that small yoga studios like hers shouldn’t be placed in the same category as “big box gyms.”

This sweeping categorization has had serious effects on her business. 

After gyms were allowed to reopen in May, Brooks said, her clients had begun to come back. Even though their capacity was cut from 55 students per class down to 17, she said they were doing well enough that she was adding additional classes. 

Then on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Gov. Ned Lamont mandated new rules requiring masks to be worn at all times inside gyms — including while working out. In response, Brooks said that she had to cut the number of classes she was offering in half. 

“The mask mandate really killed us,” she said. “That kind of set everything back.” 

Brooks said that she didn’t understand why they were being penalized after having followed all the precautions mandated by the health department. 

Marr said the mask mandate didn’t stop most of UP’s clients from coming to train. She said the staff told people to think of it as altitude training, and they made recommendations about which masks were best for working out. 

UP Fitness also let people buy “virtual memberships” where they could rent a piece of gym equipment to take home and purchase access to live-streamed classes. But even with 100 virtual members, Marr said the model wasn’t going to be sustainable long-term. 

“You can run a gym safely and have everything socially distanced,” she said, “There are always ways to do that.” 

Looking at the data

Data from the Governor’s Office shows that, as of November 9th, Connecticut had identified 69 COVID clusters, or instances in which COVID was spread from one person to more than one other person in a particular location. Out of those 69, four were traced back to indoor sports facilities. The reported clusters included anywhere from 3 and 21 people.   

A study published by the CDC in July on community exposures found that there was no statistically significant correlation between gym attendance and contracting COVID among the study participants. However, in a Zoom presentation at the University of Virginia on November 18, Dr. Anthony Fauci listed gyms along with restaurants, bars, coffee shops and church gatherings as having a high risk of transmission. 

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the decision to allow gyms to reopen at 25 percent capacity in so-called “Orange Zones” – parts of the state with a 4 percent COVID positivity rate and hospital capacity of over 85 percent. According to statewide contact-tracing data, gyms were responsible for 0.06 percent of COVID cases. 

Still, the restrictions and closures, combined with public perception of how safe it is to work out in an enclosed public space, have taken their toll. 

As of mid-October, seven fitness companies had filed for bankruptcy, according to Business Insider. These include 24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Yoga Works. 

A May report by the California-based advertising agency InMarket found that smaller, more elite fitness chains were seeing greater recovery than larger conglomerates when gyms were first opening up. They attributed this success partially to the fact that gyms with smaller membership that offered group classes were profiting from their ability to control their class schedules and monitor who comes in and out. 

The case for large chains

At the same time that small local gyms are trying to distinguish themselves from national and international chains, larger gyms are making the case that they, too, are safe for members. 

Joseph Pepe, chief operating officer at the Planet Fitness franchisee group ECP-PF Holdings, said that the measures the gyms were taking to sanitize the facilities actually made them one of the safer places to be. 

“There’s not many businesses you can go in and spray down something that kills the virus before you touch it,” said Pepe. “You can’t really do that in the supermarket.” 

Pepe said that their gyms imposed a policy of mask-wearing at all times starting in July. He said most of their members said they felt safer because of it. Members can also download their “crowd meter” an app that shows how many people are at the gym at any particular time.  

Brian Tietz, vice president of franchise support at Liftbrands, the parent company of the fitness chain Snap Fitness, said that having a membership-based business made it possible to know exactly who was coming in and out. This, he said, was in contrast to a restaurant, which he characterized as a “transient” space. 

Tietz said that Snap Fitness had some advantages in comparison to other larger chains — smaller facilities, smaller locker rooms, no swimming pools and no large group fitness classes — that made it easier to prevent viral spread. But Tietz said that larger facilities could be just as safe as long as they made the effort to take the necessary precautions.  

Planet Fitness has 34 gym locations in Connecticut. Pepe said that since their reopening, they have had 11 cases in which people with COVID came into the gym. Tietz said that out of the company’s 700 plus locations, they have had only 10 to 15 known cases of COVID among members. Both said that the cases were not spread within the gym. 

Both Tietz and Pepe argued that gyms are also critical for keeping people healthy, helping to guard against obesity, depression and diabetes.

“We’re part of the healthcare solution, here,” said Pepe. “People who contract COVID who have various comorbidities – like hypertension or diabetes – they have, typically, more dire outcomes.

Both Pepe and Tietz say their members continue to return and say they have also seen an increase in new membership as well.  

“Overall, we’ve proven it’s safe, and I think people are really starting to realize that more and more now,” said Pepe.

This story was edited to correct the name of Joseph Pepe, chief operating officer at the Planet Fitness franchisee group ECP-PF Holdings

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.