Gym Owners Express Optimism and Frustrations with Reopening Guidelines

While gyms, fitness studios, movie theaters and museums can choose to reopen May 15, some owners say requirements are inconsistent and unclear

By Myers Reece
Corey Olofson, owner and coach at Big Mountain CrossFit, is pictured in her gym in Whitefish on May 7, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The state’s gradual reopening of the economy is taking another step forward with Gov. Steve Bullock’s announcement last week that gyms, pools at gyms, fitness studios, museums and movie theaters can open their doors beginning May 15 with strict capacity limits, sanitation requirements and other restrictions.

Those entities were previously barred from reopening during Phase 1 under the governor’s original plan. Other places of assembly will remain closed, including performance theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls, music halls and pools that are not located in gyms or licensed public accommodations.

While the announcement was cheered in some corners, gym owners in particular expressed frustration with a lack of clarity in the state’s rationale for imposing certain restrictions, including prohibiting group classes and closing sitting areas, which they say are inconsistent with allowances for other industries such as bars and restaurants.

Some gym and fitness studio owners say they would have to reconfigure their entire business models to adhere to the guidelines. Corey Olofson, who owns Big Mountain CrossFit in Whitefish, said she relies on group classes, which are prohibited indoors in the governor’s guidance and limited outdoors.

Olofson was part of a coordinated effort among gyms and fitness studios across the state to lobby the governor to move their operations from Phase 2 of the reopening plan to Phase 1, which Bullock’s updated guidelines do. But even with the switch to Phase 1, which allows her to reopen in some capacity earlier, Olofson plans to continue lobbying the state to revise the regulations.

Olofson noted that she has complete control over who enters her gym and participates in her classes, and adds that there’s no research suggesting the novel coronavirus is transmitted through sweat.

“It looks like we’ll have to change our business model,” Olofson said. “It’s a little frustrating because you have an awful lot of control in a group class. There’s no reason that you can’t meet every one of the CDC’s guidelines or exceed them with group classes. We’re not packing 30 people into a 20-by-20 room. I have 5,000 square feet.”

“I’m going to keep fighting,” she added.

Other requirements for gyms under Bullock’s guidelines include operating at 50% capacity, frequent sanitizing of equipment, six-foot distances maintained between equipment and in locker rooms, and more.

Travis Davison, who owns Straight Blast Gym with his wife Kisa, plans to begin offering personal training for both yoga and activities like strength training on May 18, while continuing online courses. But Davison expressed similar frustrations as Olofson, pointing out that non-touching courses — bag training, martial arts drills, yoga classes and more — wouldn’t violate social-distancing guidelines, while noting that allowable operations such as salons and tattoo parlors inherently require person-to-person contact.

“It’s so confusing and incongruent if you look across the industries,” he said, adding that he doesn’t understand the closures of lobby sitting areas when a restaurant with a 150-person capacity could have 75 people with groups of six people seated together. “But I can’t do a yoga class where I could easily separate the mats by six feet.”

Davison has a variety of ideas that he says could be implemented at his gyms while maintaining safety, but as the guidelines are written now, he can’t comfortably move forward with any of them. He said exercise not only helps people ward off diseases but also improves their mental health.

“You’ve got a population that’s completely scared and stressed and you’ve taken away their ability to have physical exercise, which has proven to have an impact on mental health,” he said. “It’s hard for us to know that we have students out there hurting.”

Tim Price, owner of Flathead Health and Fitness in Kalispell, said the prohibition on indoor group classes impacts his business but not to the degree that it does some other studios and CrossFit gyms.

“I feel terrible for them,” he said. “The whole premise of what they do is group-based exercise. At least we can let people in to work out on equipment that is spaced out. But classes are a big part of what we do, too.”

Price notes that, as an example, gyms could conduct group cycling classes with social distancing easily in place. The lack of classes also prevents him from bringing his team of instructors back to work.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consistency (in the guidelines),” he said. “Gyms and health clubs have been singled out as being ultra high risk but without any rationale provided as to why that is. I’d like to see some of the rationale.”

Still, Price is excited about the limited reopening, although he doubts even a full reopening later will usher in a return to pre-pandemic business levels. He says once unemployment benefits and government stimulus dollars run their course, he anticipates the economic impact to be more fully felt in the community.

“Our business will probably look a little bit different come this winter than it did last winter,” Price said.

Stacy Averill, owner-operator of the new World Gym north of Kalispell, said her gym opened on Jan. 6 and was starting to gain momentum before the pandemic forced its closure, which she said was “pretty devastating for us.”

“We’re going to just try to move forward now: new beginnings, one step at a time,” she said, adding that the gym is offering free memberships to health-care workers and first responders until July 1.

A spokesperson for Cinemark, which operates movie theaters across the country including Signature Stadium in Kalispell, said in a statement that Cinemark is working toward a general mid-summer opening date for its theaters, “contingent upon health and safety regulations, as well as availability of studio content.” The first release currently scheduled is Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” set for July 17, although the spokesperson added that reopenings will be staggered.

“It is important to note that the theatrical exhibition’s return to ‘normalcy’ may span multiple months, driven by staggered theatre openings due to government limits, reduced operating hours, lingering social distancing and a ramp up of consumer comfort with public gatherings,” the spokesperson said.

Polson Theatres, Inc., which operates 10 movie theaters in Montana including in Polson, Ronan and Whitefish, could not be reached before the Beacon went to print.

Alyssa Cordova, executive director at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, said her museum will reopen with limited hours on May 16, more than two months after it shut down. She said the museum is going beyond the governor’s guidelines, including plans to operate at less than 50% capacity and require staff to wear gloves and masks, which the state didn’t mandate for museums.

Cordova added that museums weren’t even mentioned in the governor’s original reopening plan, and she and other industry representatives had to work to gain clarity for their operations.

“This has been an interesting process defining what museums are, and it’s actually been pretty ambiguous about where we fit into this,” Cordova said. “We’re very pleased because the governor is specifically mentioning museums now.”

Cordova said museums are well-positioned for operating in this environment, as patrons are already instructed not to touch anything and that social distancing is easy to achieve.

“I do think that the arts really matter in a time of crisis, so the sooner we can reopen even with limited capacity and extreme measures in place, the better we can provide what I feel is a very valuable service in a time of crisis,” she said.

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