Arne Jackson, owner of the Anytime Fitness Franchise in Sidney, predicts that various measures designed to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the fitness industry will continue for some time. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Long wait to reopen is over for Vancouver Island gyms

Fitness centre owners taking safety measures they expect to be in place for some time

Arne Jackson couldn’t help but feel anxious as his Anytime Fitness franchise in Sidney reopened Monday morning.

“The whole thing is, you want to make sure that you have done everything that you possibly can to make people feel comfortable,” he said. “You want to make sure that people recognize that you have taken all these precautions. But then you are always thinking, ‘Is there something else I could have done?’ What kind of reception are we going to get?’”

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The initial demand for Jackson’s gym was tentative, with just a handful of people waiting outside the doors Monday morning. But as the day progressed, Jackson’s anxiety started to drop as he began to receive positive feedback.

“I’m glad that the B.C. government had the vision to let us open at this stage,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of them taking that step, and judging from the members’ reaction of being able to come back and work out again, I think most members will feel the same way that I do.”

Among those that are happy to be given the opportunity to re-open are Jim’s Gym and Iron Warehouse, based in the Parksville-Qualicum area. Both had to close down like everyone else for more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It hurt us,” said Jim Miller, who is one of the owners of Jim’s Gym. “Our expenses did not go down and we did not have any revenues. We did surive but there are other gyms that sadly are struggling to stay open. And I am sad to see that.”

Meaghan Orcutt, who co-owns Iron Warehouse, also feels a lot better now that they’re open.

“This is a second home for a lot of people and I know not everyone understands it but the gym is an essential service for some of us,” said Orcutt.

But this feeling comes with caveats. For more than two months, the Sidney Anytime Fitness did not generate any revenue, far from ideal for any business, but even less so for a business that had only opened in the fall of 2019. Jackson was also not sure when the gym might reopen.

When the provincial government allowed gyms to reopen during this second phase of the pandemic recovery, Jackson found himself in a race against time.

“So the week or week and a half prior to opening was a real panic to get all the measures in place, so that we could open for the 25th,” he said.

RELATED: Fitness centres mull smaller classes, online lessons once studios are able open

For starters, a gym can only operate at 50 per cent of its maximum capacity.

Jim’s Gym now only allows 20 people inside every hour. To ensure the numbers are maintained, members are now asked to book their training day although drop-ins will be accepted if space is available.

To make sure that social distancing is followed, Miller said they’ve moved some of the equipment out to create space that will allow members to train without compromising the social distancing protocols. The heavy equipment that are difficult to move like the threadmill have also been decommissioned to ensure appropriate physical distancing.

“It’s now easier for people to use the equipment without violating the one metre separation from other members,” said Miller. “Some we’ve moved to the front room where we can spread them out and some of them we’ve rented them out to members. It has given us more space.”

Sidney Anytime Fitness measures include large Plexiglas dividers that separate pieces of equipment as well as create physical barriers in parts of the business. Signs urging users to maintain their physical distance and follow hygiene protocols appear throughout the business, and users must also come prepared to work out right away as the business is trying to minimize the use of the change room area.

“The whole idea is to minimize how long people are in the gym,” said Jackson.

The entire gym is also subject to a rigorous cleaning regime that uses disinfectant shown to kill the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as specialized equipment with which staff can reach every nook and cranny of equipment. Users must also undergo a tutorial and receive personalized cleaning supplies as they enter the facility.

In short, a lot of measures are in place and Jackson thinks they will be here for a while.

“Those measures are going to continue, so it’s impacting us from a cost perspective, with additional staff, additional cleaning supplies, hand sanititizers, just the awareness programs — it all costs money,” he said.

RELATED: Stay fit, not sick: Experts encourages gym-goers to flex their cleanliness

Jackson said the long-term consequences of the lockdown on his business remain to be determined. “We don’t know how many members will want to continue to freeze their accounts,” he said. “For our members, we just froze their accounts, so that there is no payment taken out.”

He added that for any members not ready to return, the business will continue to freeze their account. “No one has to pay if they are not going to come back,” he said.

If most clients retain their membership, two months of down time is “bad” but won’t impact the business in the long-run. Jackson said he expects additional changes to the way in which gyms operate during the next phase of the restart.

“But whether or not, we can go back to the way it was before may not happen until there is a vaccine,” he said. “That is a question even the provincial government would have to think about.”

Jackson said the long-term impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the fitness industry depends on whether the novel virus that has caused the pandemic returns in the fall.

“That is what everybody is thinking,” he said. “Come this fall, are we in for another round. I think that will have a major impact on all businesses, not just gyms, if that happens.”

Jackson said the current pandemic figures for British Columbia generally and Vancouver Island specifically give him comfort. “I think that people’s fears will subside if the numbers don’t come back through the summer months. I think people will gain confidence and if that happens, if the numbers stay low, [gyms] are going to be OK.”

Orcutt said making sure that members are comfortable coming back to the gym is her objective.

“Our mental health is very important during this time so I needed to make sure people felt safe and comfortable coming back to their gym,” said Orcutt, who added that since they’ve opened everyone has been respectful and following social distancing protocols.

“People are just happy to be back in the gym,” she said.

RELATED: COVID-19’s ‘collateral damage’ will be our mental health

Anytime client Misha Sood certainly is. For Sood, Monday’s reopening brought a sigh of relief.

“I was so happy,” she said. “I was craving for it to be back and I feel safe.”

Sood welcomed the various measures in place as something that not only benefits users like herself, but also others in the gym, including staff.

“I’m in the love with the staff,” she said.

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