Gyms are among the industries that have borne the brunt of pandemic restrictions. In Illinois, fitness facilities were part of the first wave of shutdown orders in March 2020 and remained closed until the end of June 2020.
Fitness industry revenue in the U.S dropped by 58% last year, according to the Global Health and Fitness Association.
Things were starting to look up as the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, but surging case numbers associated with the Delta variant have prompted many people to rethink their return to the gym.
Tony Maier took over as CEO of Four Seasons Gym and Fitness Center in Bloomington in February 2020. Just weeks later, the gym was forced to close. Maier said that gyms struggling to survive the pandemic have no choice but to ride the roller coaster of changing conditions.
It hasn’t been easy.
“We’re operating at 65% of where we were in 2019. So we’ve taken a humongous hit in terms of membership and we’ve taken a humongous financial hit,” Maier said.
Part of the challenge in steering a workout facility through a pandemic is making members feel comfortable in the space. But because different perceptions of the risks posed by COVID translate into widely varying levels of acceptance for certain safety measures, “comfort” can mean a lot of different things.
Maier said Four Seasons complies with all guidelines issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health, like recommending that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors. Reservations are required for certain activities, like lap swimming, and some pieces of equipment are off-limits to encourage social distancing.
For the most part, Maier said, members are understanding of the measures and for the need to update them based on IDPH guidance. But on occasion, irritated members question the need for enhanced safety measures, Maier said.
“That’s always the frustrating part. Because these are things that we haven’t had to do in the past. And I tell our team that I can’t wait to get back to just a normal member complaint,” Maier said with a laugh.
As with other businesses, like restaurants or grocery stores, front-facing staff often have to absorb frustrations over COVID policies they had no hand in creating. Maier said that does happen once in a while, and that staff members may occasionally need to take a break to regroup. But he said his staff is generally empathetic to members who may be upset.
“And I think that helps so much. Everyone’s handling this in their own unique way,” Maier said.
Some gym enthusiasts have handled the uncertainties of the pandemic by turning to virtual workouts. Many gyms, including Four Seasons, pivoted to online fitness classes when facilities were forced to close. Virtual fitness has proved to be popular, prompting some in the industry to wonder if it will become a permanent fixture.
Maier sees the benefit of maintaining virtual offerings once the pandemic has waned. But he projects online classes will be a “value added service” rather than a permanent replacement for brick-and-mortar gyms.
“Typically club members want that social aspect. It’s part of their routine, it’s part of their life, it’s part of their everyday ritual. And the people that they interact with are like family and friends.”
No online program can replace the sense of community that a gym provides, Maier said. And something like a Zoom class or Peloton session can’t reinforce the sense of commitment that prompts people to join a gym in the first place.
“There isn’t that same accountability you get with a personal trainer, or a coach, or a group exercise instructor who recognizes that you’re not there and reaches out.”
Maier said Four Seasons is a community institution. It’s operated in Bloomington for over 50 years. And while he says they’re not out of the woods yet, Maier feels confident that the gym can make it through.