By Emily Hamilton
Heavy breathing, lots of sweating, and plenty of people nearby—gyms and workout studios seem like a perfect place for COVID transmission. Though some industries have been slow to recover during Virginia’s phased reopening, gyms have seen customers eager to return. Workout spots around town have adopted stringent safety protocols—and benefited from customers who are desperate to get out of the house and move around.
After at least three months of closure, gyms and fitness facilities in Virginia were given the green light to reopen when Virginia entered Phase 2 on June 12.
Michael Towne, owner of Solidarity CrossFit, adapted to COVID by installing an elaborate new fan system to redirect the airflow in the gym. “We have redesigned our gym airflow extensively in response to the growing science related to airborne transmission,” Towne says. “While we can service less clients than before, we are actually working more and upping our offerings, which is I think a trend for many businesses due to the nature of running a facility during a pandemic.”
Purvelo, the popular Charlottesville-based cycling studio, reopened a few weeks ago. Ian Dillard, a seasoned instructor at Purvelo, says the early days of the shutdown were hard for the studio. “Like all small businesses, COVID has definitely had a huge impact on Purvelo,” he says. “Financially, we have definitely taken a hit.”
But in recent weeks, the studio has enjoyed full classes, and even had potential pedalers on their waitlist. “We are seeing demand for classes and we have been able to meet that demand while also using safe practices,” Dillard says.
Erica Perkins, executive director of intramural-recreational sports at UVA, oversees operations of the university’s four recreation and fitness centers. UVA closed its facilities on March 18. The Aquatic & Fitness Center reopened on August 3, and the North Grounds pool reopened by reservation only on August 10.
Perkins says she has received an abundance of positive feedback from patrons who have decided to return. “People are exercising and have been both compliant with policies and appreciative of our services and safety procedures,” she says. “We have been very impressed with the positive response to our operations.”
Like the smaller studios, Perkins says the UVA gyms suffered financially. “The Intramural-Recreational Sports Department has not been able to host or offer the range of activities and events that typically generate revenue and has suffered membership losses while we were closed,” she explains. Memorial Gymnasium, where basketballs and volleyballs normally bounce incessantly, remains closed and empty.
While the revenue lost from months of in-person classes was substantial, many gyms stayed afloat by offering virtual fitness classes to their members. “We responded early at the start of the pandemic and pivoted to virtual classes and run and strength coaching services to maintain many of our members,” says Ann Dunn, owner and founder of Formula Complete Fitness. Now some customers are coming back in person, too.
The gym industry finds itself at the center of a paradox: Months of quarantine and isolation have left people antsy and eager to get out and exercise, but going to the gym also means risking exposure to COVID. It seems, though, that this is a risk that many Charlottesville gym-goers are willing to take.