Gym use down 20-25%, but costs and cleaning are up

by MACKENZIE REISS
Bigfork Eagle | January 13, 2021 2:45 AM

On a typical New Year’s Day, a parking space is hard to come by at Bigfork’s Montana Athletic Club, as waves of newcomers take the first steps toward achieving their New Year’s resolutions.

But this year, things looked different.

“On the first, second and third [of January], we saw no difference. In fact, it was very quiet -- and we were very nervous,” said club owner Doug Mahlum. “But the fourth came around and we had a number of people that signed up and the parking lot started to fill up.”

It was a rush, but not at the level the club has seen in pre-pandemic years. The coronavirus pandemic prompted many gym users to cancel memberships in favor of at-home or outdoor workouts and while gym users are returning to group spaces, numbers are still down from 2019 levels. Mahlum said his facility usage is at 75-80% of where they were last year, but up from the 60% figure they were met with in mid-May, shortly after reopening following a nearly two-month closure.

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Alex Boyd works up a sweat at the Montana Athletic Club in Bigfork last Friday morning. Mackenzie Reiss/Bigfork Eagle

“When you're in this business a long time, you pretty much know what's going to happen at different times in the year, what kind of marketing you need to do… you have a pretty clear path because of past experiences, but right now is something that we’ve never seen before,” Mahlum said. “How do you react to stuff? You have to be really, really nimble.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that while fitness is important for physical and mental health, the virus has been shown to spread at indoor gyms and fitness studios. However, risk of infection can be reduced by maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask. The Montana Athletic Club requires users to wear masks upon entering, but permits removal of the masks while using equipment. The CDC advises gym-goers to keep masks on, even while working out, for the highest level of risk reduction. Sanitation protocols are also a factor in keeping virus transmission low, according to the CDC. Ventilation, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and handwashing are recommended for safer gym usage.

The MAC has taken cleanliness seriously — Mahlum estimates that the gym has spent more than $20,000 in air sanitation alone and staff spend between 10 and 14 hours per day cleaning and sanitizing the facility. Carts with sanitizer are located throughout the gym which also utilizes floor sanitizers and specialized exercise mat sanitizing machines. Users feed the mat through what looks like a giant pasta roller that cleans the mat so it’s ready for the next user. And these are just a sampling of the tools and protocols the MAC has undertaken.

“You want people to feel safe, and if we have consistent breakouts of the virus in the facility, why are we even open?” Mahlum explained.

The challenging part for Mahlum and other gym owners is that their memberships are down, but costs are up.

“It's staying a constant 20-25% lower than what it was last year,” he said.

Mahlum has taken advantage of government assistance programs to help retain his staff and cover the costs of additional cleaning.

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Cora Boll exercises on an elliptical machine at the Montana Athletic Club in Bigfork on Friday, Jan. 8. Mackenzie Reiss/Bigfork Eagle

“The payroll protection program helped a ton,” he said. “One of our major concerns when we were shut down is I've got 40-45 people that work here … some of these people, this is their livelihood,” Mahlum said. “How are we going to be able to support them for the length of time that we were shut down without knowing what was going on?”

The MAC used the Paycheck Protection Program to pay their employees, rather than layoff staff, during their springtime shutdown early in the pandemic.

“That helped a ton because once we were ready to open up, we didn't have to bring all new people in. They were ready, they were excited,” he said. The club has also utilized business stabilization grants and business adaptability grants and is planning to apply for the next round of PPP loans.

“If it wasn't for the assistance from the federal government and the state, we’d be here, but it would be very, very difficult,” he noted. “The thing about it is that only helps as much as you help yourself -- you can't be foolish with it.”

Despite the additional cleaning, not all members feel ready to return to a group fitness environment. Others have bowed out due to the mask requirement, which Mahlum has “taken a hard line with” for the safety of his overall membership.

“Most of the people that felt that way cancelled,” he said of anti-maskers. “So we were basically turning away business. Other facilities didn't do that, but here's the choice — you either try to keep your people safe or you just give up and I don't think you can give up.”

Mahlum identifies as a “staunch Republican” but said he considers masks to be helpful in indoor gym situations.

Some members, like Alex Boyd, reentered the group workout setting only after catching the virus because he felt more comfortable due to his temporary immunity.

“During the pandemic we got some TRX bands so I worked out at home and then we got the virus in September .. and got it real bad. I was down five weeks with it and my wife also,” Boyd said. “I figure, I got the immunity going for a few months and decided to come back.”

Those who have recovered from COVID-19 retain immunity that could last up to eight months, according to new research from the La Jolla Institute which found that up to eight months after infection, 95% of the individuals studied retained immune system memory, meaning the immune system is still active against the virus.

For Boyd, what he missed most was the socialization with other members.

“I talked to two or three guys already,” Boyd said during his first workout back at the MAC. “That keeps the brain active. The physical and the social are just so important, and doubly so for older people.”

For those who aren’t quite ready to take that first step back into an indoor fitness center, the MAC developed their own app where users can both register for in-person sessions or take one of many virtual or live-stream fitness classes. As of last week, the app had 350 users, Mahlum said.

For Mahlum, the virus has ushered in a wave of innovation -- both in sanitation practices and developing different ways of delivering fitness content.

“You have to make people feel safe and that's our goal,” he explained. “You're safe, come in and get healthy because it's going to be a while before this is done.”