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Fitness centers balancing safety, service as reopenings begin (copy)

Kelly Larson can’t get her doors open fast enough.

Larson, the president of Yoga 4 You studio, has waited nearly three months to reopen her small business in Savage.

On June 15, her dream became a reality.

This comes five days after Minnesota officially allowed gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity.

The excitement has been rising, but the challenges of operating fitness centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic have evolved since they last opened.

Disinfectants and cleaning supplies are now a necessity, and online reservations have become protocol.

All guests at Yoga 4 You will have to register online before showing up to the studio, which helps control the capacity in the studio at one time.

Also, her staff will deep-clean the facility three times a week, as well as regularly disinfect door handles and other commonly touched surfaces.

Class size for yoga sessions will also be limited. Regular sessions of 32 guests in Larson’s main studio will now be reduced to eight.

Fitness centers, like Larson’s, are understanding that they can’t operate the same way they used to, as they reopen during the pandemic.

Terry Jo Alfred, the owner of Row House in Savage, is using technology to create a safe and comfortable environment for her guests before they work out.

Her business is also requiring guests to register online or on their app before showing up for sessions. Once there, they sign in for the class through the company’s app when they are within one-tenth of a mile from the studio, a way to be contactless.

“We are doing everything possible to keep people safe,” Alfred said. “I want people to be as comfortable as possible.”

In addition to the online registration, she has reduced the number of people in a rowing session to 10 guests and a coach, which satisfies the 25% capacity limit.

On the floor are stickers denoting a six-foot distance between rowing machines, and the staff goes in the studio for 30 minutes after each class to disinfect every machine.

Steve Bounds, franchise owner of Club Pilates in Savage, has also adapted his club to welcome people safely and efficiently.

As is now common practice, all guests are required to register for sessions beforehand and encouraged to wear masks in the lobby, but not during their workouts.

Typically there are 12 reformer machines in their studio, but now there are just six, with each being spread out 13 feet apart. Each machine is then cleaned at the end of every day.

They also added an extra 15 minutes in between sessions, which provides time for guests to leave and enter the building without creating a logjam of traffic.

At the front desk, all transactions are required through credit cards, and a plexiglass “sneeze guard” barrier is placed between the guest and employee. These protocols are all being done to ensure safety as the top priority.

“We have a safe and predictable environment,” Bounds said.

BIG GYMS

The bigger the building, the more that is needed to ensure the environment is safe for guests and employees.

Tim King, general manager of Life Time in Chanhassen, is leaving no stone unturned in keeping all parties safe inside his club.

Employees are required to wear masks and get their temperature checked before clocking in. They also clean commonly touched surfaces every day at 1 p.m. and disinfect again when they close.

To manage population density in the building, they have capacity trackers, which calculate the people present in the club at the time. So far, the number of people hasn’t been a problem.

“From what we’ve seen we’ve had no capacity issues,” King said.

OUTSIDE FOUR WALLS

During the pandemic, many people resorted to staying in shape by using home equipment or following along with sessions virtually.

Even with gyms and fitness centers reopening, expect that trend to continue.

Melissa Wexler has been attending Yoga 4 You for over a decade.

Since April 1, the studio has created a way for members to attend virtual yoga sessions, which is identical to the in-studio sessions. Larson said they think that over double the number of people attend the virtual sessions compared to the in-studio ones.

Wexler said that though her favorite yoga studio has reopened, she still has some trepidations going out in public. “I don’t know if I am ready to go into the studio yet,” she said.

An avid yoga participant of 15 years, Wexler has found that the online sessions have been a handy tool during her time at home.

“These virtual sessions have been a lifesaver for me.”

Christopher Crowhurst has been a regular on virtual yoga sessions since the pandemic began.

A member at Yoga 4 You for the last five years, Crowhurst, while enjoying the virtual sessions, looks forward to having an instructor in the room to help and advise, not just behind a screen.

“I am longing to get (the instructor) to correct my posture,” he said. “To be there with community is very powerful.”

With the studio now open, Crowhurst plans to split his time in-studio and virtually 50-50. Weekdays will be in-studio, and weekends will be from his cabin, where he plans to do yoga on his dock overlooking a lake.

“It is heaven,” he said about his outdoor yoga setup. “I live to do yoga.”

For many like Wexler, comfortability will take some time to grow in this new world amid COVID-19.

Memberships may be put on hold, or some might jump right in. Clubs need to be prepared for both.

“We 100% respect how people feel,” King said of those who are thinking of freezing their membership.

SNAP Fitness in Chanhassen has implemented a way for members to stay active without having the pressure to come into the gym.

They are using an online service called Fitness on Demand. This allows members to access workouts from home either online or through their app, without having to use in-gym equipment.

“If you don’t feel comfortable coming in, here is all the content you need,” said Brian Tietz, vice president of brand performance.

MIXED EMOTIONS

Excitement versus caution. That is the balancing act for fitness centers and gyms that are ready to reopen their doors to the public.

Preparing and anticipating the first day to re-welcome guests in about three months has its range of emotions.

“If I didn’t have any anxieties after three months of (the pandemic), I wouldn’t be human,” Bounds said.

“I haven’t had one team member feeling nervous,” King said, of his employees at Life Time. “I can’t tell you how excited I am.”

For some, the timeframe of the next phase of Stay Safe MN, the state’s initiative to reopen the economy, caught them off guard. “I’m surprised we got the go-ahead on (June 5),” Alfred said. “But I am eager to provide our service.”

On the flip side, Tietz said they would have been ready to reopen their SNAP Fitness June 1 if it had been allowed.

“I’ve been going bananas with this not being open,” Tietz said. “We’re excited to be back.”

These fitness centers are more than weights and treadmills, or reformers and mats. It is a place to cultivate community.

“(The members) almost become your family,” Larson said. “I want to see these people again.”

Larson knows that if fitness centers, especially small businesses like hers, are going to survive as they reopen during the pandemic, it is going to take everyone, staff and guests, to make the new normal possible.

“We are all in this together.”


Recent May rain had the hidden falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park south of Northfield flowing over the rocks. It is one of 75 state parks in Minnesota and includes hiking, recreation and camping.