Small Gyms Across America Face Financial, Psychological Stress To Reopen Amid Pandemic

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KEY POINTS

  • For in-person businesses like gyms, the pandemic has been a body blow. With turnout reduced by half even in the states best handling the pandemic, owners aren’t sure they can stay in business
  • Confrontations with customers over masks and distancing have taken their toll on employees psychologically, with some gyms reporting staff crying between shifts
  • The managers of gyms have to cope with the unpredictability of a pandemic that could last either for six months or years beyond that

Peloton sales have surged during the pandemic, but it’s been a much different story for small-business gyms, which have struggled to survive from financial and psychological stress on their owners and employees.

Even in Vermont, a state consistently leading the nation in virus response that Dr. Anthony Fauci called a “model for the country,” small-business gyms barely attract enough customers to stay afloat. 

“I don’t know how long we can stay in business. The good part is we have a lot of people who are still continuing to pay even though they’re not coming because they don’t want to see us fold, they want to see us come back. It will depend on how many more drop if a second wave comes,” Carla Grant, owner of Supreme Fitness in Brattleboro, Vermont, told International Business Times.

Grant said the number of daily customers has been cut in half, with slight increases among college students not offsetting the number of older adults who haven’t returned.

Michael Heiden, owner of Outer Limits Health Club in Brattleboro, has seen bigger drops.

“We would get about 150 a day, and now we’re looking at 50, if that,” he said. “Some local followers are still supporting the gym even if they aren’t comfortable coming in, buying memberships. … But if it keeps going the way it is, I won’t last another year. I won’t last another eight months, to be honest. The numbers aren’t sustainable for me.”

Gyms in Italy began opening a week after bars and restaurants Photo: AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO

Common safety measures in place across the country such as mask mandates and distancing by shutting off every other machine aren’t enough to reassure many in high-risk groups. 

These pressures are being felt even by businesses in higher-density areas. Data from the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association indicated that fitness businesses had lost $13.9 billion by the end of August. The fitness industry group says that without government intervention, one in four gyms could be closed before year’s end. 

Gyms in places still struggling to address the pandemic worry that another wave, and accompanying stringent rules around indoor activities, would mean bankruptcy.

Communities like Brattleboro have made consistent mask use and isolation a top priority but the guidelines come with their own set of problems. Optional guidelines make for uneven enforcement, Heiden said.

“Vermont’s guidelines are clear as mud. The bigger gyms in town, my competitors, aren’t enforcing it because the mandate isn’t clear. Both the town and the state told me they couldn’t enforce the mask policy,” Heiden said.

Heiden also noted the psychological toll the pandemic has on gym owners. He touched on how the hardest part has been not knowing how long the pandemic will last.

“Everything is so completely unpredictable,” he said. “Most times I can see my numbers go up and down because of the season, school, that kind of thing. Right now? I have no idea if six months from now the numbers will go back up. That’s the hardest part for me.”

Revenue isn’t the only stressor. Both Grant and Heiden say that interpersonal conflicts around masks and distancing have taken a heavy toll on their employees.

“It’s unskilled labor, I don’t pay fantastic. These people making just over minimum wage have to go up and confront someone,” said Heiden. “It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable. So they’re struggling. And I’m struggling to keep my business afloat.”

Grant also feels her staff is burdened by the uncertainty and the anxiety of the job.

“The stress that it’s put on my staff has been incredible. The masks, and people’s attitudes. It took a job that we loved to do and made us hate it. We spend our whole day policing masks. it’s just a whole new level of stress,” said Grant. “Not unusual, I think, for my staff, is crying. They’re crying here, they’re crying on their way home. It’s very upsetting, honestly. We’re almost at our wit’s end. There are days I could shut the door not because of lack of business, but because of added stress.”





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