As many businesses around Long Beach sit closed or operate in a limited capacity during the COVID-19 outbreak, one of the industries that’s been hardest hit by the mandatory stay-at-home order are local gyms and fitness centers.
Across the country, large fitness chains like Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness have been forced to close all their facilities and are now strapped with financial troubles. Both companies have been forced to take sizable loans to help weather operating losses, and 24 Hour Fitness is now facing a class action lawsuit, which was filed April 1 in California. The gym is being challenged for continuing to charge membership fees despite the nationwide closures.
At a local level, gyms like The Belmont Athletic Club on Second Street and Iconix on Ocean have suspended membership fees at least through May 15 as mandatory store closures remain intact. That’s certainly been hard on the bottom line, leaving gym owners understandably concerned about the future.
“I’ve got 90 employees and we’re every bit as essential as 75 percent of the businesses listed as essential,” Iconic owner Kurt Schneiter said. “We sell a product that’s necessary. Without fitness, your immune system drops. We sell a path to happiness through fitness.”
If the loss in revenue from membership dues continues into the summer months, Schneiter predicts a bleak outlook for the fitness industry.
“So much of the fitness community is going to be driven out of business,” he said. “We’re fortunate because we’re well-funded and don’t have debt, but that’s a unique situation. We’ll survive, but a lot of our competitors and industry stalwarts will be hurt bad.”
“It’s been a huge struggle,” admitted Marc Thomas, whose company owns 34 Orangetheory Fitness centers in California, including both Long Beach locations. “We shut down on March 16 just before government mandate. We had to lay most of our staff off soon thereafter. We paid all of them for two weeks, but they’ve now just been surviving on unemployment so that’s been tough.”
Despite the obvious challenges, some optimism does remain. Jeff Cozart owns The Belmont and remains hopeful for the weeks and months ahead.
“The outlook probably should be more dire than we actually feel,” he said frankly. “We’re trusting that the assistance programs like the (Small Business Association) loans are actually materializing, and if they do then things should be fine. We’re relying on that because we had to use our available funds to help our employees as long as we could. But those reserves are going quickly.”
Cozart said that he’s utilizing the shutdown to make improvements to the facility; replacing hardwood floors, fixing plumbing issues, and giving the entire gym a deep clean. But he also stressed the importance of maintaining contact with the membership during such a trying time,
“We’re trying to use the time constructively and find ways to stay connected with our members. That’s what we’re focusing on right now,” Cozart explained. “It’s about a lot more than just your physical health right now. Being cooped up in their house all day can mess with your mind. We’re trying to reach out to people and assure them that life will go back to normal eventually. We just have to stay strong.”
Until normalcy is restored, gyms have had to pivot to releasing online content for members and non-members alike. Classes are being offered free of charge on various platforms including Zoom, Instagram and YouTube.
“It’s a great way to keep our members engaged and help the public,” said Schneiter. “To keep them moving even though they’re in the house. It’s important now more than ever. It increases your immune system and helps your mood as well.”
Thomas expects the home workout trend to become much more commonplace even after the shutdown is over. That this time presents an opportunity for the fitness industry to reinvent itself and become more flexible to market demands.
“We think the notion of at-home workouts will stay,” Thomas said. “That’s not to say people won’t want to workout at the gym—they will. But we think having the at-home option for people who are worried about going back into this environment is important.”
Once the stay-at-home order is lifted and gyms can open their doors to members once again, there will certainly be an adjustment period as people re-acclimate to life in close proximity to one another. When that time comes, innovation and strong community support will likely be required to help get the struggling fitness industry back on its feet.
“We know how tough this is for restaurants, theaters, bars, and other parts of the service industry,” Thomas explained. “We don’t feel like we’re singled out, we’re just like millions of other Americans who are struggling with this. But we will be back, and we’ll come back stronger after this is over.”