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Clark County gyms, studios and consumers adapt personal fitness to new reality amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the fitness industry both nationally and in Clark County, with larger gyms and classes giving way to smaller group activities and solo at-home options that are surging sales of personal fitness equipment.

Local gyms were all forced to shut their doors in March under Washington’s initial stay-at-home order, and they’ll remain closed until Clark County is able to move to Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. But Phase 2 allows smaller fitness studios to partially reopen, and several in Clark County have done so — but often with a newfound focus on home fitness and remote class options.

The closure of commercial gyms has led to a corresponding surge of interest in home fitness equipment. In recent months, media reports have chronicled shortages of all kinds of exercise equipment in stores and online, from kettlebells to treadmills.

During the initial gym closures, some Vancouver fitness studios opted to put their equipment to use by loaning it out to clients, saving them the trouble of having to overbid on eBay for their own setups.

Kisar Dhillon, owner of Burntown Fitness in east Vancouver, said he loaned out equipment as part of a major shift to video classes. When it became clear that a shutdown was likely on the way, he rushed to set up his studio with professional video and audio equipment, then worked with his staff trainers to create as many class videos as possible.

“You had to pivot quickly,” he said. “I know some studios decided, ‘This is too much of a mess. We’re just going to wait.’”

Once the shutdown came, he and his staff began to host live remote classes for clients at home, with the prerecorded videos as an on-demand option for customers who couldn’t make it to the live classes. A majority of Burntown’s clients kept their memberships, he said, and the business got a Paycheck Protection Program loan to bridge the gap and keep the training staff on board to host classes.

The studio has now reopened, with the caveat that classes have been reduced from an average of about eight clients to a state-mandated maximum of five. But there’s no limit on how many people can tune in remotely, and Dhillon said many of Burntown’s classes are now “hybrid live,” with additional clients participating through a video stream.

Burntown had only dabbled in video before the pandemic, Dhillon said, such as with short videos on Instagram. But now that he’s made the investment to outfit the studio with video equipment, he said he plans to keep building and expanding on the studio’s catalog of live streaming and on-demand video options.

Carrie Saraivanov, owner of Crossfit Epiphany in Vancouver, described a similar switch to home fitness classes, with daily Zoom meetings and loaned-out equipment. The important thing was to retain a sense of community among the studio’s clients, she said.

“We kept them active and physically involved in a gym even though they didn’t have a gym to go to,” she said.

The studio has reopened under Phase 2, but Saraivanov said she’s continued the home fitness option for customers who are nervous about coming back, and even though it was an invention of necessity, she said she’ll probably keep it in place as an added service in the future.

Publicly traded home-fitness companies are also seeing success, including home-exercise company Nautilus. The Vancouver-based company reported unexpectedly strong first quarter results in May, driven in part by big boosts in home fitness sales at the tail end of the quarter when the pandemic was ramping up. The company announced last week that it was exploring options to sell its commercial-focused Octane Fitness brand due to “a strategic decision to refocus on the home fitness market.”

Bigger gym chains like L.A. Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness are also offering at-home streaming class options, but local clients who want to resume in-person workouts are going to have to keep waiting. Clark County submitted a Phase 3 application on June 26, but before it was approved, Inslee announced at two-week freeze on all further advancements due to a resurgence in COVID-19 case numbers.


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