Along with about 20 percent of Americans, I belong to a gym. And like many people, I don’t go to the gym enough. But there are many millions of people who do go to the gym on a regular basis. And as the coronavirus pandemic bears down on gym-goers across the country, how will this test their commitment to getting swole? And how are gyms handling the outbreak? Is it good news for me personally, because I won’t have to feel guilty about not going to the gym enough?
In search of answers, I visited my local Planet Fitness (of which I am a member) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. As of late morning on Wednesday, the gym appeared to be mostly empty, which a staff member told me was unusual — ordinarily, at this time of day, the gym is usually much closer to full, even though it is late morning on a Wednesday.
Jacob Levi, a Pomona college graduate clad in the sweater of his alma mater and a pair of Airpods, told me as he was entering the gym that he had been working from home, and taking “normal precautions."
“I’m medium-concerned at this point, and taking it day by day,” Levi said, when asked at what point he may not continue going to the gym. “But there’s no imminent threat from going to Planet Fitness in Bed-Stuy.”
I caught up with two other Planet Fitness customers on their way out of the gym, Gaelle Win Robin and Neto Soberanes, self-described social media content creators who had just been discussing the pandemic before I approached them. Win Robin said that they were concerned, but that the people most vulnerable to an infection were probably not working out at Planet Fitness.
“I’m not seeing young kids or elderly people at the gym,” Win Robin said. “And at the gym they offer sanitizer, and I’ve always made sure to clean the equipment before and after I’ve used it.”
The Planet Fitness employee I spoke with stressed the same thing — the gym has an ample supply of sanitizer, which they are more than happy to use to wipe down anything in sight. This is one strong reason why The New York Times says that it's probably okay to go to the gym right now (provided you aren’t sick). In fact, Johns Hopkins professor Medicine David Thomas told the Times, “there’s a lower risk of picking up the coronavirus at a gym or health club than at a church service” because you’re not shaking hands or standing right next to a crowd of people while at the gym.
Planet Fitness, however, is not perhaps the kind of place put most at risk by coronavirus. It operates on a franchise model, which means local owners of individual gyms are the people who would bear the brunt of any loss. And Planet Fitness, like other big corporate gyms, makes the most money from people who pay for a membership but don’t really show up. Though signing up new members might take a dent as people start socially distancing themselves (as they should!), the company should be fine so long as people keep paying membership fees.
I visited Crow Hill CrossFit, a gym in Crown Heights, to get a sense of what might happen to a smaller gym with a more devoted following. Crow Hill’s owner, Kurt Roderick, said that he thought people would continue, as “diehard people get really upset if they can’t come.” Roderick said that one customer had a roommate who had recently returned from a trip abroad and was asked to self-quarantine, and had asked to come back to the gym before her quarantine time was up, as she did not exhibit any signs of illness (Roderick said no).
CrossFit gyms operate as affiliates of the official CrossFit “brand,” and Roderick said that he had been in touch with affiliate operators around the world. In Italy, which is under a strict national policy of quarantine, CrossFit gyms are now empty. Predictably, Roderick said, gym owners were worried about how they were going to keep paying for the rent on their gyms. “My rent’s really expensive,” he added.
Zeema Hernandez, a physical therapist with a workspace in Roderick’s gym, said that for the time being, she hasn’t made any major changes to either her lifestyle or work practice. Except for one thing: “I’m asking people to wash their hands.” When I asked her if she’d continue to do that once the pandemic subsided, Hernandez paused and then said, “Yes. It’s just good hygiene.”