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Philly gyms are reopening, but restrictions and a worried public have them wondering if they can survive

Group training gyms say they'll lose money for months, maybe years, to come. They worry they won't be able to survive.

Trainer Kati Kill conducts a class with five members at Revolution Fitness Factory. Gyms in the city were allowed to reopen this week but had to follow stricter rules than fitness centers in the rest of the state.
Trainer Kati Kill conducts a class with five members at Revolution Fitness Factory. Gyms in the city were allowed to reopen this week but had to follow stricter rules than fitness centers in the rest of the state.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Will Mac-Holmes has spent months longing for the day when he could return to the Old Kensington gym he owns with his wife, Abby. He misses teaching classes and seeing the progress of his members in person.

But now that the city has allowed gyms to reopen from the coronavirus shutdown, his feelings are mixed.

There is hope, he said, but also anxiety about the pandemic and the future of his business.

“Training is my escape,” he said. “When I’m not training, it is when I’m hit with the reality and the daunting feeling that growth, and even survival, will be very, very difficult in the next one or two years.”

The trainer, who goes simply by Will Mac, said his concern intensified this month when the city announced it would impose stricter gym safety protocols than the commonwealth. Classes must have fewer than 10 participants; masks must be worn at all times inside; and the city will perform unannounced checks and shut down facilities if they’re not in compliance.

WillPower Live, which used to have as many as 30 people per class, will reopen by early August, Mac said, but will only be able to survive for about a year with these requirements.

“These new stipulations that we have to open under are so restrictive that for me and a lot of other gyms, opening up and staffing a gym, it’s almost hard not to lose money,” he said.

But if he were not to reopen, he said, he would worry his most motivated, ready-to-return members might change gyms and never return.

» READ MORE: Is it safe to return to the gym? How to protect yourself against the coronavirus as gyms reopen.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health acknowledged the struggles of business owners but said its protocols are intended to prevent outbreaks.

“Our goal has always been to properly balance public health and the reopening of the economy,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We understand that these rules are difficult to implement, but our primary concern is making sure that gyms aren’t a place where people get sick and spread COVID.”

People are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus in small, poorly ventilated spaces, experts say. It spreads primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets, which are produced when people cough, sneeze, shout, sing, or even talk. Scientists and laypeople alike have been leery of returning to the gym, where heavy breathing is common.

As gyms look to reopen, they’re up against a pandemic, state and local restrictions, and a cautious public. According to one recent survey by TD Ameritrade, 59% of people nationwide say they don’t plan on renewing their gym membership once the pandemic relents, CNBC reported. During the shutdown, many people got used to working out at home or outdoors, cheaper alternatives to a gym membership.

» READ MORE: Gyms and fitness studios are changing layouts, spreading out machines, and implementing time limits as they prepare to reopen

Then there are those who just don’t feel safe at the gym anymore. Mac said he’s unsure how receptive his members will be to returning right away. WillPower polled its 80 members before the city’s announcement, he said, and only a quarter reported they’d return. Half said they would continue virtual workouts from home, he added, and the other quarter were undecided.

So when they reopen, he said, “we’re going to hold our nose and cannonball into the deep end.”

New Jersey has yet to allow indoor gyms to reopen, except for one-on-one training, yoga, pilates, and martial arts. Pennsylvania allowed gyms to reopen in the green phase, which the Philadelphia suburbs entered last month, as long as they reduced capacity to 50%, allowed for social distancing, and followed other health protocols.

These protocols include the state’s updated guidance on masks, which are required whenever anyone leaves home and can’t properly socially distance. Exceptions are made, however, when wearing a mask would create an unsafe working environment or if a person has a respiratory condition. Since people can struggle to breathe during intense workouts, some suburban gyms allow members to remove their masks if they’re exercising far away from others.

The city and state encourage outdoor workouts whenever possible, but gym owners say summer heat can make that difficult.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

A couple of suburban gyms said they’re doing well despite the pandemic. The family-owned Main Line Gym in Paoli has seen only “a handful” of cancellations, said owner Cody Loeffler. Legion Transformation Center, which has seven locations in Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester Counties, is “compared to most gyms across the nation ... doing pretty good,” said Liz Campanile, district manager and franchise business coach.

The city, meanwhile, took its restrictions a step further than the state. In announcing the rules, Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said people who can’t wear masks should not go to indoor gyms.

The city said Friday it had conducted 12 unannounced inspections to ensure gyms were following protocols during their first week of reopening. Eleven were abiding, and at the other, one patron was not wearing a mask, according to the city. The gym, which the city declined to name, gave the member a mask, and the facility passed inspection.

Philadelphia gyms are taking on this challenge differently depending on their model. Open-gym-style facilities, for example, don’t rely as much on classes. Some boutique fitness centers remain closed due to health concerns and financial uncertainty.

A couple of blocks away from Willpower Live, Revolution Fitness Factory took the plunge the first day it was given the green light. Owner Ari Dueñas said the energy, enthusiasm, and compliance he saw on day one bolstered his confidence, despite a precipitous drop in memberships.

The gym had 80 active members pre-pandemic, he said, but that number is now closer to 30, with 20 others paying a small fee to keep their membership on hold.

“We’re going to be taking a loss for the next few months,” Dueñas said, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to stay in business.

So far, he said, that’s meant making 10-by-10-foot squares on the floor to keep people separated, enhancing cleaning, daily temperature checks for members and staff, and adding “mask break” to the exercise vocabulary. During workouts, trainers encourage members to step outside, away from others, and take off their mask for a few minutes if they need it, he said.

Dylan Kepp, 28, returned to Revolution Fitness Factory the first day and felt at ease. Working out with a mask was easier than he expected, he said, but it still challenged him to work a little harder than usual.

He had missed having the outlet of the gym, which helps him reduce anxiety and stay in shape for drag performances. The protocols put in place by Revolution Fitness Factory made returning an easy decision, he said.

“I said to my boyfriend the other day, ‘I’m not going to be going back to a place like Planet Fitness,’” Kepp said. “I don’t trust the bigger gyms that they’re gonna sanitize everything and I don’t trust people that don’t want to wear masks and look out for others.”