It’s Hard Out Here for a Gym

Personal trainers to the city: Is our work really more dangerous than a haircut or a massage?

Heavy breathing. Shared surfaces. Grunts of passion. 

These are some of the reasons gyms tend to be at the back of the reopening docket in cities across the country. But in San Francisco, a group of small gym owners is arguing that there are ways to reopen their facilities safely, with small numbers of people supervised by one-on-one personal trainers, operating much like the physical therapists that currently have “essential service” status. And so far, they say, the Department of Public Health (DPH) hasn’t been very responsive to their proposals. 

On Monday the San Francisco Independent Fitness Studio Coalition submitted a public records request asking the city to disclose whether they have data showing that it would be unsafe to reopen gyms with certain safety precautions. The letter is more of a kick in the butt to get DPH to move on crafting regulations and creating a reopening timeline for gyms, which have been in the works since May. 

“We were working with the city and they just kept asking us over and over for new guidelines, updated guidelines, different guidelines,” says Dave Karraker, owner of MX3 Fitness and a leader of the coalition. “And we kept telling them, unless you tell us the reason why we can’t reopen, we can’t give you a solution.”

The stakes for the coalition’s 50 small businesses and 600 employees are dire. Karraker says MX3 Fitness lost 95 percent of its revenue when shelter in place started. Since resuming outdoor workouts, they’ve ticked up to about 80 percent losses. Move SF has had to shutter completely, and Burn Pilates is closing three of its four studios. Nfinite Strength closed its Taraval gym, but is continuing as a digital fitness app called Pancea. Things are bad for national chains, too. Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness have both filed for bankruptcy.

For now, however, the only thing the city could legally do to help is provide clearer guidelines for reopening gyms. The reopening itself will have to wait until San Francisco gets off the state’s “watch list,” which prevents gyms, hair salons, and other personal services from operating indoors. 

“All reopening activities are paused currently due to the rising hospitalizations in San Francisco and our county’s presence on the state’s watch list. We are experiencing a significant surge,” DPH spokesperson Rachael Kagan wrote in an email, adding, “Indoor activities carry more risk than outdoor activities. It is also vital to slow the spread of the virus for people to avoid gathering with others who are outside their own households, and to wear face coverings at all times.” 

Still, small gym owners are asking for the city to provide evidence that their reopening proposals carry more risk than barbershops, massage parlors, and tattoo parlors, which were all previously scheduled to open before gyms

“Every single one of those services requires that 80 to 100 percent of the time when they’re when they’re with clients they literally have their hands on their clients and they’re in their personal space, way below the six-foot distancing,” says Billy Polson, owner of Diakadi Fitness. “With one-on-one personal training, during our entire session the only time that we would need to come inside of that six foot distancing would be if someone was about to drop a weight — that’s like less than 5 percent of our time.” 

The coalition’s latest plan, which they intend to submit to the city in the coming days, proposes a 100 square foot zone occupied by each client-trainer pair. Cardiovascular machines and equipment would not be allowed, and all gym users would need to be supervised by a trainer, who would subsequently sanitize all equipment used. Karraker says he would be happy to train just one person at a time in his 1,200 square foot space. 

Polson feels that the media has unfairly targeted gyms as a high risk space. “We’ll be able to keep our folks safer than these high drama articles are saying,” he says. 

As with everything COVID-19 related, the science is still tentative. While it’s pretty clear that indoor group fitness classes can be a major vector of transmission, there’s evidence that the spread within gyms could be more mild, especially with strict distancing and capacity requirements.

Karraker says that in a meeting, San Francisco lead health officer Dr. Tomas Aragón told him that salons and barber shops were slated to open before gyms and personal training because “those customers were shouting the loudest.” 

Now, after months of virtually no revenue, gym owners are starting to get loud, too. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Nfinite Strength had completely shuttered. The company closed its gym, but is continuing its business as a digital fitness app.

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