January is usually a very big month for gyms. This year, though, it is also a very big month for COVID-19 cases, as the Omicron variant surges through Massachusetts and the United States.
And that is dealing another blow to an industry that has absorbed a lot of them over the last nearly two years.
“Everyone is noticing a huge drop, number one in sign-ups and number two in overall attendance, which is a bad omen for us,” said Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators and owner of Stronger Personal Training in Worcester.
Before COVID, nearly 20 percent of gym sign-ups each year happened in January, as people rushed to make good on resolutions and get fit following the holiday season. But this year, gym owners say rising coronavirus cases have led to a drop in business.
“In-person attendance is low,” said Heather White, owner of TrillFit, a fitness studio in Mission Hill. “We just had our big New Year’s kickoff event. Before the pandemic it used to sell out at 150 people, and we had 20 people there this past weekend. But anything larger than that, quite frankly, just doesn’t feel safe.”
A December 2020 study of gym-goers found that 57 percent of members who had not returned to the gym did so over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, a trend that could be continuing this January with gym sign-ups down roughly 50 percent in Massachusetts, said Nash.
Prior to Omicron, the fitness industry appeared to be slowly recovering from the pandemic, with attendance nationwide roughly 70 percent of what it had-been pre-COVID, said Liz Clark, president and CEO of IHRSA, The Global Health & Fitness Association.
“We were on our way back to health, but obviously with this variant, it’s been another blow that has knocked us down,” said Clark. “We will get up again, but it’s certainly a challenging time.”
Indeed, around Greater Boston, current and former gym-goers themselves say the surge has them reconsidering the risks of indoor exercise right now.
Concerned about rising caseloads, Deb Robison froze her membership at the Cambridge YMCA at the end of December. As an immunocompromised person, she said, the chance of catching COVID-19 was too high.
“I started to realize that it wouldn’t be good for me to get hit with the Omicron variant,” said Robison. “I definitely hope to go back and hope that this wave does pass quickly. It sounds like COVID-19 is going to be around for a while, so we’re going to have to do things like this when there are peaks, unfortunately.”
Then there are those who haven’t gone back to the gym since March 2020, their planned return forestalled by latest wave of the pandemic.
Like Nick Favorito. A frequent member at Equinox before the pandemic, he was considering a return to the gym this year until Omicron convinced him otherwise.
“The New Year seemed like a great opportunity to start a resolution,” said Favorito. “But I talked it over with my wife and we both think that there are lots of things you shouldn’t be doing as the cases reach their peak and sharing a bunch of air with strangers in close contact is probably one of them.”
Roughly 22 percent of gyms nationwide have permanently closed as of July 2021, leaving some gym-goers without a fitness center to return to. The pandemic has upended routines for people like Chris Gunadi, whose gym in Somerville closed its doors last year.
“Since they shuttered, [going to the gym] has just been off the table,” he said. “I’ve been watching the [COVID] numbers waiting to see when I can start going back and finding a new place.”
Complicating matters, for some, is the new proof-of-vaccine requirement for indoor business in Boston, which went into effect Jan. 15. Gym owners have mixed predictions on how it may affect them.
Owners like Nash say the mask and vaccine mandates could deter customers, at a time when business is already struggling. He also raised concerns about the expectations placed on gym employees to validate vaccination records.
“From a business standpoint, it is becoming extremely difficult when we put up these extra layers which are turning people off,” said Nash. “We’ll do whatever we need to as business owners to help, and if it’s going to stop the problem, we want to stop the problem. But I don’t know if my front desk person is qualified enough to check to see if someone’s vaccine card is real or not, or if it’s up to date.”
Other fitness studios, such as TrillFit, already require proof of vaccination for all customers. A majority of the studio’s business is now virtual, but in-person events require both a negative COVID-19 test and proof of vaccination. White said customers have welcomed that.
“Customers want to be in a safe place and they want to know that the people they’re surrounded by have the vaccine and are doing everything they can to slow the spread of coronavirus,” said White. “I really feel like that’s why we are still in business.”
As a consumer waiting to return to in-person yoga classes once the Omicron wave ends, Ginevra Whalen of East Boston said the city’s vaccine requirement is an encouraging sign for her return to in-person fitness centers.
“I am actually more likely after the surge to go into my yoga studio now that there’s a vaccine requirement,” she said. “That had always been my sticking point, that there was no vaccine requirement for any of these things.”
No matter why people return, Nash said his team is eager to welcome back more customers. It has been a rough two years for gyms; they need to start building back, and that needs to begin now.
“The new year really is where we set the tone for the entire year,” said Nash. “It’s really when we make the bulk of our money, and usually if we don’t make it in these months, we’re not going to make it, period.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.