The parking lot of Royal Fitness now serves as a spinning studio and a boot-camp space. On the hot pavement, participants work up more of a sweat than they did three months ago inside the gym.
But it’s worth it, said Danni Zacamy, fitness director at the Barrington, Camden County, mainstay, which has been around for more than 40 years.
Royal Fitness started the classes last month, days after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy OK’d outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people. The classes filled up immediately, with groups capped at 20 participants, spaced 12 feet apart.
“Oh, my God, it was unbelievable,” she said of the workouts. “They had a smile from ear to ear the entire time.”
Zacamy said the gym will likely continue some outdoor classes even when it gets the green light to reopen the indoor facility.
Gyms and fitness studios in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are adapting for an uncertain future. Pennsylvania gyms can’t reopen until the final green phase. Gov. Tom Wolf has yet to set a date for the Philadelphia area’s move from yellow to green. In New Jersey, Murphy has said gyms can open sometime after June 22 but hasn’t set a date.
Even when gyms get the OK, they’ll proceed with caution, implementing capacity limits and social-distancing rules, and working to appease members with varying levels of concern about the pandemic.
The coronavirus spreads primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets expelled when a person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. Experts say the risk of infection increases in small, poorly ventilated indoor spaces — especially ones where people are huffing and puffing.
Most epidemiologists, who study diseases, say you won’t see them in the gym this summer. Forty-two percent report it will be three months to a year before they return, while 40% estimate it will be longer than a year, according to a recent New York Times survey of 511 epidemiologists.
Meanwhile, a third of consumers say they won’t feel comfortable returning to the gym for more than six months, according to a Morning Consult poll.
As Pennsylvania and New Jersey begin to reopen, businesses try to strike a balance. They want to make customers and staff feel safe and comfortable, and rebound financially after months of lost income.
At gyms, owners are changing their layouts, planning for time limits, stocking up on disinfectants, and worrying about how well their social, sweat-based industry can weather what’s to come. Owners don’t know how many people will return and how quickly.
Joshua Leve, founder and CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios, said gym-goers’ priorities have shifted.
“What members want in their new normal is not going to be about the best workout, the most equipment, or the most classes," Leve said. "It will be about whether or not I trust my health to you and your team.”
Workout buffs are raring to return to the gym, Leve said, while the elderly and people with health conditions might never go back. Others will return in time.
Personal trainers and gyms that focus on small group training may see the fastest financial recovery, Leve said. They can do a deep clean between every session, giving customers peace of mind.
“The next years in the business will belong to those that can individualize the workout process," he said.
Matthew Heintzelman said he felt “nervous and a little uneasy” when he reopened his gym, Titan Tactical Strength and Conditioning, in Shamokin Dam on June 1, days after Snyder County entered the green phase. Of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, 46 have moved to green.
Heintzelman wondered how many people would be back, and whether they would be receptive to the new rules.
“It’s a change for them. It’s a change for us,” he said. “It was almost like we were starting up again.”
The gym trains first responders, military personnel, athletes, and people with Parkinson’s disease, and has always required appointments. But now, large programs are broken into small groups to allow for social distancing.
People have been “very go-with-the-flow, even if they don’t necessarily agree" with state health restrictions, Heintzelman said.
For Philadelphia-area gyms, Tim Rubin, who owns the Sporting Club Main Line in Bryn Mawr, said the biggest test is to come. Right now, he said, closed facilities aren’t staffed, expenses are low, and some landlords are being flexible.
“When you open, that’s when you step on the accelerator, and you either speed up or you blow up really quickly,” Rubin said. “If you reopen and nobody shows up, that’s a problem."
At his gym, which has 1,000 members, staff members already have moved equipment to allow for social distancing, plan to provide individual spray bottles, and have installed a clear barrier at the reception desk, Rubin said.
Big-box gyms are trying to spread the message that their facilities will also be cleaner than ever. Planet Fitness, which has dozens of locations in the city and suburbs, released an ad that shows employees smiling and dancing as they wear backpacks that spray disinfectant on weights and machines.
Small independent gyms, meanwhile, are trying to differentiate themselves.
Giancarlo Regni, the owner of G-Strength in Queen Village, is part of a coalition that asked Wolf to allow personal trainers and small-group studios to reopen earlier than large gyms.
Regni said small-group trainers already follow most of the guidelines laid out for retail stores and other businesses that reopened in the yellow phase.
Even in pre-pandemic times, he said, G-Strength had only four to five people in a session.
At CrossFit Royalty in Trooper, Montgomery County, owners Pete and Karin Hellberg said they could have five- to seven-person classes spread out across 4,400 square feet of warehouse space.
Small gyms have an edge, Pete Hellberg said, over large ones where more people are circulating in and out, touching equipment and machines.
Jamie and Steve Promislo, who own the Center City spinning studio Revel Ride, said they believe that indoor cycling classes will be among the last workouts to return.
“Boutique spinning is not really conducive to this type of situation,” Jamie Promislo said. “We’re in a small room with AC and fans running to keep people from passing out.”
The Promislos say they’ll wait to reopen until it’s safe, and when they do, it will likely be with smaller classes and more time between sessions for cleaning.
Gym owners aren’t the only ones who will have to adapt. They said they’re banking — literally — on members wanting the camaraderie of the communal workout space so much that they are willing to change their habits.
“If you want a certain cardio machine and someone’s taking a long time, you’re just going to have to be understanding," said Rubin, of the Sporting Club Main Line. “If you aren’t the type of person who wipes down their machine every time, you’re going to have to step your game up as a courtesy to others.”