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After the coronavirus pandemic, group fitness will never be the same

The reasons people love group fitness are the same reasons that make going back so hard.

CMT Sweat with Barry’s Bootcamp
A Barry’s Bootcamp team member attends CMT Sweat with Barry’s Bootcamp at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on June 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Anna Webber/Getty Images for CMT
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

By the end of my first SoulCycle class in 2014, my lungs were on fire and I had dripped a puddle of sweat below me. I’d mocked the cult-like spin class and its celebrity following, but agreed to try it because I wanted something different from the gym — plus I had a free class, and a former coworker, one who I liked, offered to do it with me. After 45 agonizing minutes, I swore: never again.

I would go on to take multiple classes a week.

I thought about this four years later, when I took my first Barry’s Bootcamp class. This time it was my legs on fire and not enough air in the world for my lungs. I barely walked myself out of class.

Never again, I said. I would go on to take multiple classes a week, until March 15 of this year.

That’s when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said never again, at least never for now, and shut down New York City’s gyms and fitness studios as part of a bigger fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

For the last six years or so, I’ve become a regular at group fitness classes. My cohort and I have helped, CNBC reported, boutique fitness studios make up 40 percent of the health club industry market in 2017 and surge 121 percent since 2013. SoulCycle has opened more than 90 locations, and its co-founders took $90 million in buyouts in 2016. Barry’s (formerly known as Barry’s Bootcamp) has 70 locations in 14 countries. And as proof of the strength of this concept, even in the face of the pandemic, Peloton, which offers group fitness cycling, treadmill, and yoga classes from your home, has seen its stock soar 63 percent this year.

Recently, the rest of the group fitness field hasn’t been anywhere near as lucky.

California instituted the first lockdown orders in the Bay Area on March 16, followed by Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide directive on March 19. Cuomo’s announcement and lockdown orders in New York were instituted on March 22 (which in hindsight, seems to not have not been quick enough), and more states quickly followed.

Group fitness studios have had to shut down their live studios and watch their revenue dry up. Mass layoffs hit companies like Solidcore, a Michelle Obama-endorsed pilates class, and SoulCycle competitor Flywheel. Former employees told Vox that SoulCycle has had two rounds of layoffs itself. And a source close to the company said 5 percent of SoulCycle employees were laid off in late April.

While some companies, like Barry’s and SoulCycle, have adjusted and taken their classes online or on apps, they’re still not making the same kind of revenue they would if their studios were open.

It’s not as simple as getting an all-clear. When studios do open across the country, they’ll likely have to adopt changes including limited capacity and health protocols, like making clients wear face masks.

For example, look at this retrofitted gym in Hong Kong, one of the places in the world that’s done a relatively good job of controlling the outbreak. It looks more like office cubicles than treadmills:

This barriered phalanx of treadmills looks like something out of a sci-fi show or a fictional future. Are people going to want to work out like that? Especially when the options for online workouts at home, while expensive, seem to be safer and maybe more appealing than running on an altered treadmill.

For CEOs and founders of fitness companies like Barrys, upstarts like dance workout Forward Space, and fledgling companies like Rowgatta, not to mention trainers, staffers, and group fitness fanatics, this feels like a preview of a worrisome reality where working out with people in the same room will never be the same — if there’s a future for group fitness at all.

Fitness studios have always been germy

It’s just a numbers game. When it comes to spreading infectious disease, a mass of people — like, say, the 50 to 60 in a group fitness class — in a small space is the most dangerous thing.

Typically, the most crowded classes happen right before and after work, but studios often have around eight to 10 classes per day scheduled. That’s hundreds of people touching equipment, breathing heavily, sweating, and moving around — the same kind of stuff you’d find at a traditional gym (gyms will have their own dedicated group fitness space, too), plus even closer quarters, more high-fives, and more shared equipment. At the same time, there’s a crowd waiting to get into the next class, and staff trying to maintain the studio.

While studios regularly clean and disinfect, each one of those people, coming and going, is an opportunity for the virus and risk of transmission. As of right now, and even in states like Georgia and Texas where businesses have begun to reopen, there isn’t a consistent legislative directive about what fitness studios and gyms should be doing to keep their members and staff safe.

According to research collected by the National Institutes of Health, gyms and fitness studios operating at full capacity are high infection risks for respiratory diseases like the flu and tuberculosis (as a respiratory disease, the coronavirus would ostensibly carry the same risk, but this study was done prior to the outbreak). The concern is even worse if they’re without proper ventilation. Gym and exercise equipment surfaces are susceptible to harboring staphylococci bacteria, and can also be a breeding ground for HPV, strep, and E. coli.

Coronavirus transmission in group fitness settings has not yet been extensively researched in the US, as the country still has work to do in testing and contact tracing. But there’s a disconcerting study out of South Korea that has found a cluster of infections from a group fitness class there. According to a CDC research letter from health experts at South Korea’s Dankook University Hospital and College of Medicine, a total of 112 people were infected with the coronavirus from a fitness dance class — the majority, 50.9 percent, of those infections were from instructor to student.

“Characteristics that might have led to transmission from the instructors in Cheonan include large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts,” the researchers hypothesized. “The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets.”

Epidemiologists I spoke to echoed the research letter, in that this combination of potentially contaminated surfaces and objects, the lack of social distancing, and heavy breathing makes fitness studios extremely risky. And minimizing that risk through things like masks, ventilation, and thorough cleaning is absolutely key.

“Gyms can be difficult places to maintain social distancing and the volume of high-touch surfaces and objects makes them uniquely challenging for infection prevention efforts,” Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist and biodefense researcher, told me. “Moreover, in those environments where social distancing is difficult, the CDC has recommended masks, which you can’t really do when working out.”

Providing masks for clients, reducing capacity, and maintaining at least six feet of distance are the basic, foundational directives epidemiologists prescribe. Fitness companies are taking note, with some of them even taking extra steps.

Barry’s instituted new cleaning rules and even shut down its studios before states like New York and California implemented shelter-in-place directives. Joey Gonzalez, the CEO, explained to me over email that the company has put together a council of health experts to advise them on further steps they need to take to reopen, which include limiting the number of people in the room; making masks and gloves available for clients and requiring them for staff; and eliminating showers and locker room access during the initial phase of reopening.

At Forward Space, a dance-cardio class that’s been touted as the next big craze, founder Kristin Sudeikis, said they’ll also be making changes.

“Our priority is protecting the health and mental well-being of our customers,” Sudeikis told Vox. “With that, we will allow for more time between classes to increase sanitation protocols. We will also be lower numbers of guests admitted into any one class allowing for more open space in the room.”

But some of the biggest changes so far look to be at SoulCycle.

The spin company, known for its devout following and sweaty workouts, says it will: start rotating its rental shoes and lockers so they’re not used twice in a row; implement a hands-free check-in; begin administering health checks for staff and instructors, and do the same for riders where state or local governments mandate it. They’ll also remove gum, Q-tips, and razors from the studios and bathrooms, limit water fountain usage to emergencies, pare down the number of available bikes in a room, and eliminate showers. They’re still considering requiring their riders to wear masks.

SoulCycle’s new measures

SoulCycle’s sister fitness company Equinox is going to implement similar measures:

The caveat here is that we don’t know how effective these measures will be once they’re implemented. There’s no current baseline on how well these precautions will protect clients from the coronavirus in a group fitness studio. At the same time, there’s no telling if people will even want to come back if all these rules are put in place.

Group fitness studios are going to need financial help

In the before times, when I took a Barry’s class, there would be moments — maybe multiple — when I hit failure. I just couldn’t hit the last pushup, or my legs would go flimsy after a set of snatches, or I needed to put my hands on my knees and catch my breath after a burpee.

Doing all that already uncomfortable stuff while wearing a mask? While breathing in my own exercise breath? While adjusting said mask every so often? I can already imagine rotating my feet, twisting my torso, and heading out the door.

Exercise devotees not wanting to work out with a mask — experts told Runners World that the disdain is understandable because masks inhibit performance and are, surprise, uncomfortable — is a big fear group fitness founders and CEOs have.

Again, it’s a numbers game.

A full group fitness class at Barry’s or SoulCycle can mean around 60 people in one room. If the health directive from state officials limits capacity to 30 people in a fitness studio, that would mean a company would need to have two full classes to make the revenue for one, pre-pandemic. For SoulCycle, which has more than 90 studios worldwide, the financial hit can be exponential if they have to make up that kind of money at each studio.

This all assumes that people will, after this ordeal, still want to work out with other humans. The pandemic has already altered people’s behaviors, like working from home or walking in the bike lane if someone doesn’t budge on the sidewalk, and we now think about our risks in ways that we didn’t before. Consumer demand (the measure of how much people want to buy things) in South Korea, a country that has been praised for effectively managing the disease, has plummeted — not a good sign for business owners in the US.

More immediate than the possibility of a bleak future is the fact that studios are already financially wounded.

Back in March, the founder of Solidcore, a workout that gained cult status because of a Michelle Obama endorsement, emailed clients that it laid off 98 percent of its staff. Flywheel, an indoor cycling studio, also reportedly laid off 98 percent of its workforce that same month. In late April, according to former employees, SoulCycle had a second round of cuts, laying off studio staff and instructors.

Closed studios can’t make money. Many of these studios don’t have the bankroll of a big company, as SoulCycle does with Equinox, either. That means no money for staffers, instructors, and rent.

“The single greatest issue for fitness studios, however, is what to do about rent when we can’t operate out of our studios and run our business,” said Kenneth Rosenzweig, the co-founder of Rowgatta, a rowing-strength training fitness company.

Rosenzweig and co-founder Nadav Ben-Chanoch wrote a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pleading for help for fitness studios, primarily in the form of rent relief. They argue that fitness studios have taken over rents previously owned by clothing, books, and electronics stores — places that Amazon hit hard. They provide jobs and business for neighboring retail spaces. Rosenzweig and Ben-Chanoch also make the case that fitness studios provide health and mental well-being to clients.

“There has been absolutely no action on the part of the government (federal, state or local) to address tenants’ rent liability while they are forcibly closed. This uncertainty caused by government inactivity has created real headaches for fitness studios and all retail establishments alike,” wrote Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig also told me Rowgatta has had to conserve money so they can reopen.

Rowgatta has also had to get creative to make ends meet. It rented out the equipment in its studios and launched paid livestream classes. Online classes sometimes rely on equipment that range from weights to bands to expensive apparatuses like bikes — SoulCycle began delivering at-home bikes this month to use via the Variis app — and even rowing machines. Barry’s, similarly, also started selling its equipment like weights, mats, bands, and benches.

According to Gonzalez, Barry’s has been able to keep 60 percent of its full-time staff and all of its trainers, part-time and full-time, employed. It’s actually one of the fitness companies in better shape thanks to decisions like online classes and selling equipment. But even so, Gonzalez says the financial hit is something the company can’t keep staving off.

“It’s been extremely difficult to continue to pay staff,” Gonzalez said. “Although we’ve been hard at work innovating the core business, developing Barry’s At-Home [its online classes], and retailing apparel as well as fitness equipment, the revenue generated hasn’t been enough to even cover payroll. I’m grateful to have incredible private equity partners and shareholders that have been supportive of investing in our employees throughout this crisis. Realistically, continuing to support an employee base of this size isn’t sustainable, and we will unfortunately be in a tough position if we can’t resume business within the next few weeks.”

Hilary Opheim, who has been teaching Pilates for over 25 years and has her own studio, is feeling similarly. Her business, like many Pilates studios, focuses on small, private classes. Theoretically, having less foot traffic, being able to control her hours and sanitize equipment, and having space in her studio should make it easier for her to minimize the risk for her clients when she reopens her business. Getting to a point of reopening, though, is a struggle.

“I mean I’m luckily married to someone who has a job right now,” Opheim told me. “There’s no way I’d do it [be able to save her business] on my own. There’s no way I could pay my studio rent, and the house, and groceries.”

While their businesses are thematically different, Rosenzweig, Gonzalez, Sudeikis, SoulCycle, and Opheim all share a common refrain when it comes to how fitness-goers can support their favorite workouts and instructors: Try to go to their online classes — Rowgatta, Barry’s, Forward Space, SoulCycle, and other fitness studios offer online classes and subscriptions — and don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth recommendations.

“Even if you cannot make the time for virtual classes daily, purchasing these options can provide much needed cash flow,” Sudeikis told me, explaining that the cash flow allows businesses to hold onto employees. “If there is a business and/or instructor you adore, vibe and share it on your social media, tag them! Word of mouth continues to be a vital way to support any small businesses you love right now.”

Group fitness might move online for the foreseeable future

Over the last two months, I’ve slowly turned my tiny living room, which already functions as my home office, nap pod, reading station, and selfie studio, into a workout center. I have two sets of weights, a mat, a variety of resistance bands, gym towels, and a Peloton bike (more on this in a bit). I’m not having anyone over, so it’s fine how chaotic my living room looks right now. And five days a week, I take a 35-minute class with my favorite Barry’s instructors — Michael P., Josey, Mike E., and Garret— over Zoom.

The cost, with a $225, 30-class membership, turns out to be $7.50 a class — much cheaper than the $38 per class at Barry’s Chelsea studio. Of course, a 60-minute real-life class in a studio designed for working out with a live instructor is a lot better. There’s no comparison.

But again, the specialness of these live, in-studio classes is their detriment. Being around so many people at this time, is exactly what people are afraid of at this moment.

Yet, Zoom workouts are still much, much better than working out on my own — I get distracted and check email, Instagram, and whatnot. The instructors do their best to correct form, keep classes engaged, and make playlists. I’m also joined by anywhere from 35 to 80 people in each class, many of whom have cameras on, which makes it feel like we’re all working out together. If someone in the Zoom box next to me is working hard, I feel the immense and competitive peer pressure to also work hard.

Gonzalez and Barry’s said they would continue Zoom classes even after cities reopen.

The pandemic also forced Sudeikis’s hand in launching Forward Space’s virtual presence and changing its business plan. She explains that they were lucky in a way because the company had a single flagship studio in SoHo as opposed to multiple branches. They had an eye on expansion, but the shutdown orders put that to a halt.

Not being on the hook for multiple rents allowed Forward Space to be more nimble, which meant more classes online and leaning into alternate revenue streams like merchandise.

“Instead of focusing on new physical locations and markets in 2020, with an active eye on virtual expansion for 2021, we built our Virtual Hub for subscription classes in the span of a few weeks,” Sudeikis said. “We launched our online shop to allow for guests to purchase our limited edition FS merchandise drops. This moment also provided our company an opportunity to fast track our merchandise model and its accessibility to those not in NYC.”

When it comes to the best online experience though, it’s Peloton’s bike.

Getting one was a very expensive decision, and not one I thought I’d make. I’d been saving up money for a vacation, and the pandemic vaporized those plans. I also came to the realization that I have no idea when New York City and its gyms will open again. And when those fitness studios do open, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable going back right away.

This huge unknown swayed me.

Peloton’s app, interface, and streaming capabilities are sleek and impressive. Unlike its competitors, Peloton has always been a digital-first program, and its app is evidence of that. The bike is quiet and smooth. Its coaches know how to perform for and are comfortable in front of a camera. But the most impressive thing about it is that it features live classes and an extensive library of workouts of varying lengths on demand.

That said, while I think the leaderboard aspect and camaraderie — you can send virtual high fives — are nifty aspects, it still isn’t the same as working out in a room with other people and your friends. It’s not better or worse, just different.

Perhaps nothing, aside from working out in the same room as other people to really loud music, will feel the same as working out in the same room as other people to really loud music.

It’s what Gonzalez, who also teaches and trains classes, thinks sets group fitness apart.

“Throughout this crisis, people have been cooped up in their homes, in some cases in complete isolation, for a painfully long period of time,” Gonzalez told Vox. “That energy you get from an in-person class can’t be replicated, and I do think that by the time we come back from all this, people will be hungry for that connection.”

I hope he’s right — at least when it’s truly safe enough to go back.