Colorado gyms are operating at increased capacities, but seek 3-feet rule

With all of Colorado at Level Blue or Yellow on the state’s COVID-19 dial, many gym owners are finding it easier to run viable businesses because they get to operate at 50% capacity, considerably more than they were allowed for most of 2020.

Gyms in Level Blue counties, and those in Level Yellow counties with 5-Star certifications, are able to allow up to 175 people into their facilities after having been limited to 25% or 10% for much of last year. Those limits followed a 12-week full shutdown imposed last spring by Gov. Jared Polis.

“We’ve been through hell and back,” said Jason Jost, whose family owns eight Planet Fitness facilities in the Front Range. “A year ago, we wouldn’t have thought we’d be here today. It just shows the resilience of our team, our stakeholders, our members. We had lines out the door, the first day we opened.”

But while the new capacities are a big help for big-box gyms, boutique studios still teeter on the brink because even with the limit set at 50%, they’re already operating at the maximum they can accommodate in smaller spaces while still enforcing six-foot distancing. They already were on shaky financial ground because they got little help last year from federal Paycheck Protection Program funds. Most of their instructors are independent contractors, rather than employees, and PPP funds are based on the number of employees a business has.

The Colorado Fitness Coalition, formed last fall to represent the industry in discussions with state health officials, is lobbying for a reduction of the six-foot rule to three feet. The CDC last week recommended that for schools.

Karey Goebel, who owns ONE Yoga Denver, said the six-foot rule limits her to 16 people in a room that accommodated 40 prior to the pandemic. She says her business has been running “on fumes” for the past year and could benefit “tremendously” if the six-foot rule was cut to three feet.

“I would want to know that the three-foot distance was safe,” Goebel said. “It would be the difference between us faltering like we are, and going back to the way things used to be. From a business perspective, that would be good, but from a societal perspective, I would want to make sure everyone was safe — my teachers, my students.”

Sarah Brittenham, who owns a Barre Forte studio in Washington Park, says the six-foot distancing rule will be the “biggest obstacle” for small studios going forward if it remains in place.

“We can’t operate at 100% capacity with six-foot distancing,” Brittenham said. “If they were to say, ‘You can now be three feet from each other, with a mask on at all times,’ that would be night and day difference for us.”

The same goes for Front Range Orangetheory studios.

“For studio businesses, the social distancing is what is having the biggest impact on being able to help more people work out right now,” said Orangetheory regional manager Kelsey Donahue. “We have multiple studios where every single class is full, and we can’t add more classes to the schedule. Unless there is a change in the social distancing requirement — which, with our mask enforcement, with our cleaning protocols, I believe we are able to do safely — we can’t grow as a business with the current restrictions.”

Even for Jost’s Planet Fitness locations, which can allow 175 people and rarely reach that number, they would like to see the six-foot requirement reduced because then they could utilize more of their treadmills, exercise bikes and stair machines.

“We really don’t need more capacity,” Jost said. “What we’re really trying to have them look at is reducing our social distancing, especially with our cardio (equipment). We’re hoping the state looks at the study that the CDC is doing with the schools and expands it to other industries.”

The Josts aren’t complaining, though. Their facilities are able to operate much like they did before the pandemic, albeit with mandatory masks, heightened cleaning protocols and enhanced ventilation systems.

“We’re counting our blessings, there is no doubt,” said Rich Jost, Jason’s brother. “California is just starting to reopen their gyms. We have lost friends in the franchise system out there. I just don’t know how they’re doing it — no revenue for 12 months. We still have to pay our bills.”

5-Star certifications, allowed by the state and administered by counties, have helped gyms expand their capacities. The Josts saw another benefit in the program, which basically certifies that businesses are doing more than state rules mandated.

“I think 5 Star has helped,” said Robin Jost, Jason’s wife. “We can really promote that we had to go through this rigorous checklist to be 5-Star certified, which then makes our members feel safer.”

Each county’s certification checklist was different. So was the process by which counties chose the inspectors. For example, Jefferson County contracted a construction permit company.

“They were very well versed in what the requirements were, impressively knew what they wanted,” Jason Jost said. “In Arapahoe County, they used their existing building department; we had a plumbing inspector.”

In one case, an inspector must have been favorably impressed by what she saw, because she came back the next day and bought a membership, he said.

Inspectors examined invoices for upgraded ventilation filters, Jason Jost said. They checked for state-mandated COVID-19 signage. They checked to make sure mask mandates were being observed and took pictures of the sanitizing chemicals clubs were using, making sure they were listed by the EPA as products that work against COVID-19. They checked for signatures on the cleaning checklists clubs keep on file and the health checklists employees have to fill out every day before work.

The Colorado Fitness Coalition estimates that about 150 Colorado gyms and studios have closed permanently because of financial losses caused by COVID-19. They also say the industry in Colorado has seen a 50% drop in users and a 32% “reduction in workforce.”

Gym and studio owners are hoping a new COVID-19 dial coming in April will help clubs big and small, including giving them permission to operate with three-foot distancing. They also are following the progress of a bill in Congress, the GYMS (Gym Mitigation and Survival) Act of 2021 sponsored by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), that would give gyms federal assistance. Three Colorado congressmen — Rep. Jason Crow, Rep. Joe Neguse and Rep. Ed Perlmutter — have signed on as co-sponsors.

“There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel,” said Donahue, who is a member of the fitness coalition’s advisory board, as is Robin Jost. “Colorado has done what seems to be an incredible job with the vaccines. We have already seen a lot of members come back. We’re excited for the future, but I do think there are a lot of gyms that are just barely hanging on, and a lifting of restrictions can’t come soon enough.”

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