When the coronavirus pandemic swept across North America in March, it closed schools, businesses, restaurants and fitness centers, forcing many people to work from home and limit their mixing in society.
There was one silver lining: the weather, while brisk and blustery some of the time, was generally good, and getting better. It made exercising outside tolerable, and even appealing most days.
While many people continued their fitness programs over the last seven months with Zoom classes or dripping sweat on a treadmill or Peloton bike indoors, many moved outside.
Lured by good weather in the spring and fall, some people even survived the sultriest days by working out early in the morning or late in the evening.
But now, winter is coming.
What will fitness studios and gyms, many of which have moved workouts outside, do at the end of October as days get shorter and frigid mornings make it harder for clients to peel back the blankets and get out of bed?
For the owners of four D.C. independent fitness studios, there are four distinct choices: invest in a new studio that supports a hybrid indoor/outdoor workout; encourage athletes to come back indoors while working out in masks and maintaining their distance; build individual workout “pods” separated by a frame and plastic sheeting; or, sadly, decide to shut down for good.
For Chris and Alex Perrin, the husband and wife team who own Cut Seven, a facility that offers an intense, boot-camp style workout in Logan Circle, the pandemic put on hold expansion plans, moved classes outside onto a D.C. school’s soccer field, and prompted the search for a new studio.
Reggie Smith, who co-owns BOOMBOX, a boxing/fitness studio across the street from Nationals Park, pushed his workouts outside to both D.C. United’s Audi Field and the roof of Union Market.
Now that things are cooling off and daylight is fading, he hopes fitness fans will come back inside while taking pandemic precautions.
Candice Geller’s Election Cycle, a small spinning studio on the east end of H Street N.E., will be celebrating its three-year anniversary in January.
After putting indoor classes on hiatus and renting out her bikes for months, then moving classes outdoors, Geller said she hopes her business will hang on to celebrate the milestone.
She has outfitted her studio with individual indoor workout “pods” with frames and plastic sheeting so riders might be more comfortable coming back inside.
All three of those studios said they will try to survive the winter and keep their fingers crossed for a mild winter and early spring.
But, for Betsy Poos and Alyson Shade, partners in Realignment Studio, a two-story yoga studio on Pennsylvania Ave. SE in Capitol Hill, the story is different.
After a spring, summer and fall of Zoom classes mixed with the occasional distanced outdoor flow at a nearby school’s soccer field, their three-year partnership has come to an end: Realignment Studio will close at the end of the month.
For Poos, she said she felt there was just no end in sight for the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The clincher for us was not just in getting through the next three months, but that after the next three months, we come into the spring and we are still sitting in the very same place and not able to return indoors safely for classes,” she said after a morning sunrise yoga class at Watkins Elementary School in early October.
Smith, who only opened BOOMBOX in the summer of 2019, said his client count was steadily rising in the months leading up to March. Now, he said darker days and cooler weather will make people cross the threshold into his gym on Van Street SE.
“As we lose some daylight, people who were reluctant to workout previously, they maybe take a chance and come out try a class, they see we’re checking temperatures, we’re staying distant, we’re wearing masks, and we’re as safe as you can be, working out,” said Smith.
Classes at BOOMBOX are capped to 11 people, one-third of the normal capacity. That means there’s more, Smith said, than six feet between each person’s punching bag.
Poos, however, said her business’ two spaces were not set up with social distancing in mind, and even retrofitting would not have made a difference.
One space, in the basement, did not have proper ventilation, and the other, while it was upstairs with high ceilings, would allow so few yoga students that it was not worth running classes in-person.
“The last thing I would ever feel is OK is being an owner of a business, being a teacher, trying to put people together for wellness that then did result in a COVID case. There just wasn’t enough to balance that,” she said.
For now, Poos, Shade and her employees will continue teaching yoga virtually. Poos will run Zoom classes via her website, BetsyPoos.com.
Realignment Studio isn’t the only yoga studio that’s been forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. A neighboring Capitol Hill yoga studio, Be Here Now, is also closing.
While it didn’t make sense to stay open any longer from a business perspective, Poos said she and Shade tried to hang in as long as possible because they recognize that yoga, for many people, is more than just a workout.
“That hits hard,” Poos said of another D.C. studio closing its doors.
“There’s folks, with yoga being an experience that’s a bit different than other fitness modalities, they feel like ‘I really need this community.’ They may have a spiritual connection. They feel really let down right now. So for that reason, it was that much harder to decide to close. [But], for our financial health, that was what we had to do,” said Poos.
While some studios are closing, others are feeling optimistic, as the pandemic brought on new opportunities.
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Chris and Alex Perrin’s original Cut Seven location, in a triangular-shaped studio on the corner of 11th Street and Rhode Island Ave. NW, was known among fitness aficionados to provide one of the hardest workouts in the District.
But the space was not conducive to social distancing. Over the last five months, however, D.C. sports fields, even including one summer morning at Audi Field, have played host to the Perrins’ brand of team-oriented workouts.
In fact, a steady stream of new clients who have felt comfortable doing outdoor workouts with weighted bags, kettlebells, heavy elastic bands and a good dose of bear crawls and 20-yard sprints migrated from their old gyms and studios and joined the Cut Seven family.
“Two claps,” instructor Marcus Lowe yelled one recent morning, standing on freshly-laid red turf at the gym’s new indoor/outdoor location at the corner of 14th and Swann Street NW.
As members warmed up for a sweat session that included banded side lunges and squat jumps, Perrin described how a spring phone call to a number listed on a “For Lease” sign resulted in Cut Seven’s newest location opening in late September.
“Winter is definitely everyone’s ‘what are we gonna do?,’” Perrin said.
“It’s cold. Picking up dumbbells and kettlebells in the cold is not very comfortable. It rains a lot. So that was the idea behind opening up the 1401 Swann Street studio, because we can cover it. We intend to put a roof structure so we can keep the elements at bay,” said Perrin.
He said months of work went into leveling and repaving the parking lot of an old auto shop, giving the indoor structure a deep clean, building racks for weights and anchors for elastic bands, putting up a new fence, and laying fresh bright red turf.
“We said, ‘if we’re going to survive, this is how it’s going to happen, so let’s put all of our resources into it,’ so we did, and I think people are catching onto it. And if we can solve the winter issue, we’ll definitely do very well,” Perrin said.
Geller, the owner of Election Cycle, is innovating to solve the “what are we gonna do?” question.
She built individual, plastic-framed workout pods so her clients can feel safe coming back into her spinning studio. It might seem strange for people to work out inside a plastic bubble, but Geller said she has tried doing a spin class while wearing a mask, and it’s not easy.
“I understand why we can’t do it without a mask, but also that it’s almost impossible to do with a mask. Which is why we created these little pods,” she said.
Geller said she hopes to continue offering outdoor rides through partnerships with neighboring businesses like Pursuit and Duffy’s. She also hopes to take advantage of grants provided by the city to winterize its “streeteries.”
“If those places are still providing a space that is climate controlled, that will obviously be really helpful to us,” she said.
Geller said she had a recent conversation with a D.C. government representative who said many small businesses are closing due to the pandemic, and the winter will force still more to shut down.
So while these three fitness studios have every intention of making it through the winter, the virus and business conditions will dictate their success. Geller said her landlord at 1108 H St. NE. has been reluctant to make rent concessions.
“Our landlord has not worked with us all, not given us one cent of rent reduction, despite the fact we haven’t been able to use the space for anything,” she said. “ … The big business, bank, landlord-type mentality … is in the end going to kill us.”
Perrin and Smith’s businesses — Cut Seven and BOOMBOX — have been more fortunate, getting some rent leeway from their landlords.
Smith was able to put off paying rent while BOOMBOX was closed, and Perrin got a rent reduction for his old studio, which has served as a studio for his online classes, but he hopes to reopen for distanced workouts soon.
Smith said his business’ survival requires life getting somewhat back to normal after the winter.
“With the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), I think we’re fine for the next few months for sure,” he said.
“If this thing drags on through 2021, we’re talking next summer, then it gets very difficult to survive. We’re running capacity about one-third of our space, the revenue approximates our capacity, so it certainly isn’t what we modeled when we opened.”
Perrin said he hopes the combination of fully outdoor classes when the weather allows, the new hybrid studio, and the reopening of his old space will bring in enough revenue to withstand the coming months.
“We do hope this is an attractive offering to this street and the folks that used to come to our studio,” he said. “No situation is ideal right now, but we’re doing the best we can, which I think people really do appreciate.”
For now, however, it seems gym-goers are still interested in squeezing every last bit of outdoor activity during the fall months before they have to face going inside for a sweat session.
“Fall in D.C. anyway, we see a decrease in riders,” Geller said, “because everyone wants to be outside. Same thing in spring, before it’s too hot. It’s hard to gauge right now what will happen with that, but we’re hopeful people will start to feel a little more secure and safe. I understand the hesitation. It’s a scary time.”