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Struggling boutique gyms navigate unique COVID-19 pandemic challenges

TORONTO — Amy Aldrich-Witt peered up at the threatening clouds on a recent early morning in Toronto. "Hopefully the rain holds off," she said.

TORONTO — Amy Aldrich-Witt peered up at the threatening clouds on a recent early morning in Toronto.

"Hopefully the rain holds off," she said.

The 32-year-old owner of Delta Train Liberty Village, a gym tucked among the repurposed industrial buildings the neighbourhood is known for, was about to put six members through an outdoor workout in the parking lot. 

Rain would mean cancelling the class — yet another blow four months after Aldrich-Witt closed her doors because of COVID-19.

Gyms are among businesses that can reopen across much of Ontario on Friday, as part of Stage 3 of the province's restart plan. Aldrich-Witt will have to wait to head indoors however; the Greater Toronto Area and parts of southern Ontario must remain in Stage 2 for now.

Gyms in some other provinces have already been allowed to reopen after those regions loosened certain public health restrictions.

Like many small businesses, the global pandemic has brought boutique gyms to their knees. While many quickly pivoted to online workouts, and more recently to small outdoor workouts, those don't begin to pay the bills.

"So far it hasn't covered rent for this month," Aldrich-Witt said. "But I would rather do (the outdoor workouts) than stay closed. I know my workout for me, it's for my mental well-being as well as physical. So, I want to make sure (members) have that."

The outdoor workouts have been well-received by cooped-up members who've been climbing the walls for the past four months. 

"Oh my god, so good," she said of being able to see members in person again. "Everyone's so happy to work out."

The rain held out on this particular morning. The six members happily huffed and puffed through burpees, kettlebell swings, and deadlifts. They each had their own equipment, and were spaced out on their own large square of gym flooring — hauled outside during a set-up process that takes Aldrich-Witt an hour.

The equipment was carefully cleaned and the floor mopped down  between classes.

Jennifer Lau opened Toronto's Fit Squad with two co-owners just six months before the global pandemic shut them down. They've recently started holding outdoor classes in David Pecaut Square, but the fees barely put a dent in the bills, including the $30,000 monthly rent on their 6,000-square-foot downtown gym. 

Fit Squad has held virtual classes on Zoom almost since Day 1 of the lockdown. Having a schedule and some semblance of structure kept them sane, she said, because "we were fish out of water. We had no idea. The future was so uncertain."

Aldrich-Witt also runs daily Zoom workouts, and said she gets as much out of them as her members.

"It does give you a purpose, right?" she said. "I knew I had to wake up every day, I knew I had to do these workouts.

"And it also made a difference being able to see everyone online because you feel like you're connected to other people."

Home exercise equipment has been scarce for some. Lau got a kick out of seeing members substitute everything from weighted suitcases to jugs of laundry detergent for weights.  

"Looking back at it now, had we known the hot commodity that was a dumbbell or a kettlebell, we could have sold all our equipment and been fine," she laughed. "Kettle bells were going for like $400 apiece, it was insane."

While the chance to reopen offers some hope, small Ontario gyms aren't out of the woods yet. Gyms in the province will be permitted up to 50 people, but physical distancing will require two metres of space between members.

Aldrich-Witt figures she'll be able to operate at 10 members per class, significantly lower than pre-novel coronavirus capacity.

Lau said a poll of their members showed some don't feel comfortable returning to the gym until there's a vaccine. 

"The market is going to be completely different going back into this," she said. "Some people have lost their jobs and people just don't feel comfortable leaving the house."

Mike Morrison, who owns F45 Training Ancaster in Hamilton with wife Julie Jarvie, said their membership base had dropped by more than 70 per cent. Most of the drop-off has come in recent weeks, which Morrison blames mostly on the sunny weather.  

The Stage 3 protocols were good news to the couple, who figure they can have 15 people per class based on their square footage. It's still well off their pre-COVID-19 numbers of 27 to 36 people, but it's a better number than they'd feared and "a bit of weight off" their shoulders.

"Now the challenge will be how to showcase our safety protocols being followed — no equipment sharing, no movement around the studio, full cleaning between classes, etc. — to prove that we can and will be a safe environment," Morrison said.

Alex Kucharski is a founder of the Ontario Independent Fitness Studio Association, which was formed during the pandemic to give small gyms a voice. Kucharski said the biggest concern was being lumped in with big-box gyms, but the Stage 3 protocols announced Monday were the same for both. Even large gyms such as GoodLife Fitness will require members to book workout times in advance to stay within capacity limits.

"The physical distancing guidelines for capacity are certainly a great step forward for all fitness studios," said Kucharski, who owns an F45 gym in Richmond Hill, Ont.

"We now await to see when the rest of our Ontario studios can reopen and hope to see expanded rent relief measures for August."

Aldrich-Witt's landlord allowed her to defer the first couple months of her rent, while Lau's landlord took the rent out of their security deposit. Both landlords have since applied on their behalf for Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), although the program hasn't been extended beyond July.  

The 30-year-old Morrison and Jarvie, 29, who've owned their gym for just a year, said these have been "probably the hardest days of our lives, because we have invested our entire blood, sweat, tears into our first year to create this community for ourselves and our members. It's the connections with people you've made, and knowing that for so many of our members, that 45 minutes was an outlet for them to relieve the daily stresses.

"And all of a sudden, everyone's daily stresses just got that much worse, and we were no longer able to support them."

While they're all managing to keep their heads above water, numerous Ontario gyms have closed their doors permanently.

Brothers Chris and Marty Smits recently shuttered Forme Fitness, the Toronto gym they'd owned for the past five years.

"It was a gut-wrenching decision," Chris said. "My brother and I love our clients, we love the community, we love the gym, right?

"But the model that we created is no longer safe, you can't move forward using a large group model, and then a lot of these people that we created this business model for are millennials and the working class — a lot of them lost their jobs. So the disposable income for a $300 a month membership, or $200 membership is now gone. So, it's a pretty dire situation."

Smits said they pored over the numbers countless times to try to make it work, but didn't want to go into more debt, especially when a second wave of the pandemic could hit.  

"So it's like, at some point, you got to stop the bleeding and just take your loss and, and try to figure out what the next move is."

That next move for Smits and his wife Elle Daftarian is launching an eight-week virtual challenge that's a physical and lifestyle reset. There are 40 participants, and part of the challenge is virtual workouts run by Smits. There are also weekly team challenges, information videos on sleep, nutrition, motivation, etc.

"There is a silver lining to this pandemic," he said. "And I'm excited."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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