ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Staying fit and healthy during a once-in-a-century pandemic can present something of a quandary.
Regular workouts provide long-proven health benefits and gym memberships are a popular way for many people to exercise. But in the days of COVID-19, there’s a potential downside to visiting indoor facilities where patrons tend to breathe hard and could pass along coronavirus germs.
It’s a risk-reward proposition for patrons and it’s forcing gym owners and operators to do things differently. Keeping facilities ultra-clean and enforcing public health protocols are now essential parts of a successful business plan.
“We’ve doubled our staff in terms of a task force specifically for COVID,” said Darlene Lopez, general manager of the recently opened Defined Fitness Hilltop Club in Rio Rancho. “We have to take every step possible to make our guests feel safe and comfortable.”
The extra steps are paying off. Several local workout facilities have reported recent upticks in gym usage even though the last 10 months have been painful at best. New Mexico’s public health order forced gyms to shut down from mid-March to June. There was another two-week closure in November and gyms have since been allowed to operate at 25% capacity.
The shutdowns were a major financial blow for fitness businesses large and small. Many — including Defined Fitness, Planet Fitness and New Mexico Sports and Wellness — suspended membership fees during the shutdowns and some had to cut staff positions.
“I’m not going to lie, the first shutdown was really difficult,” said Maria Lamar, director of marketing at Defined Fitness, which operates eight large clubs in New Mexico.
“Like everyone else, we had to make some tough decisions. Fortunately, we’ve been able to employ hundreds of people through the pandemic and now we’re starting to see things get better.”
Peter Pineda, owner of Anytime Fitness near Unser and Ladera, expressed similar sentiments.
“The first shutdown was horrible,” he said. “We lost roughly 20% of our memberships.”
But Pineda was encouraged by the way things bounced back when businesses reopened in June. He said his gym did not lose any members during the brief November closure.
Jim Gay, regional director of Sports & Wellness who oversees five locations in the metro area, said there were 15,000 members pre-pandemic. But the overall number is about half that today, Gay said.
Shawn Gale, general manager at Riverpoint Sports & Wellness on the West Side, said members are indeed filtering back, nearly a year into the pandemic.
“About 35, 40% of our membership base that left have come back,” he said.
While some in-person instruction remains, instructors are conducting remote classes and even sessions for individual clients. There also are an abundance of prerecorded videos in the gym library that can be accessed, Gale said.
Meanwhile, other fitness facilities are still trying to limp through the state’s pandemic restrictions.
The nonprofit Jewish Community Center in Northeast Albuquerque normally operates recreational basketball leagues and hosts numerous fitness classes and swim meets in addition to its gym services. Many of those activities have been cut back or canceled because of the state health order.
“We can only have five people on the basketball courts at a time,” said Shelly Prant, CEO of the Jewish Community Center. “We’ve moved some of our fitness equipment downstairs to that area to help with social distancing but it’s still very quiet. People like the socialization and camaraderie they get when they come to exercise and that’s just not the same right now.”
While pandemic restrictions are undeniably bad for business, gym operators understand the necessity of following safety protocols. Rigorous cleaning policies are the new normal and many clubs have made significant investments to help keep things spotless.
Defined Fitness and the JCC, for example, have purchased electrostatic cleaning systems that sanitize surfaces and kill COVID-19 germs among others.
“New technology really allows us to get all the cracks and crevices,” said Lamar of Defined, which opened new clubs in Santa Fe and Rio Rancho during 2020. The club also temperature tests everyone entering its facilities.
Numerous local gyms have added cleaning stations that include hand sanitizer, more potent cleansers and towels. Touchless entry is also offered at many clubs through a variety of phone apps and scanners.
But part of the responsibility for keeping gyms safe falls on customers. Masks and social distancing are strictly enforced — even if it requires a bit of detective work.
Anytime Fitness, as its name implies, allows members 24-hour access to its facility even though staff is only on hand during business hours. Pineda said a few patrons tried to circumvent his club’s posted mask requirement by coming in after hours. They were not successful.
“We have surveillance cameras,” Pineda said, “so when we see that, we call the person. We’re tough on masks because we want to stay open and we honestly feel it’s important. Nearly all our members have been very cooperative but if someone really doesn’t want to wear a mask, they can work out somewhere else.”
Fitness-related businesses have also increased their online presence during the pandemic. Many offer live or taped video workouts that members can do at home.
Some gyms have added traffic monitors to their websites which indicate how busy a facility is at given times of the day. Nearly all have posted specific COVID-19 practices and protocols online.
Facilities such as the Jewish Community Center, which have outdoor space available, have been moving some workout equipment and fitness classes outside when weather permits.
“We’re really trying to make people comfortable,” Prant said. “Hopefully, the COVID vaccine rollout will start to help soon.”
Gym operators say they’re looking forward to the day when they can fully reopen but they are also grateful to customers who have stuck with them during the pandemic.
“It’s funny because, in a way, I think all of this has made people value their health even more,” Lamar said. “We’re seeing more people coming back and even getting more first-time members, which is encouraging. Members keep telling us they’re just happy we’re open. Believe me, we’re thrilled to see them, too.”