How Can You Make It Safe to Go to the Gym Now?

Personal spray bottles, gym “appointments,” and absolutely no high fives.

Two treadmills, spaced several feet apart.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Reopenings, a series about how businesses are operating during the pandemic.

There’s a reason why the internet reacted so strongly to the so-called Peloton Wife last holiday season: The lady in the ad was positively effusive about her admittedly very fancy bike, and no one likes cardio that much. The longer we’ve been stuck inside, though, the more relatable Peloton Wife has started to seem. Two months indoors could leave even the most committed couch potato longing for a little physical activity. Most of us cannot afford a $2,245 bike, but gyms and fitness studios reopening means that exercising somewhere that isn’t outdoors or on your floor will finally be an option again soon, if it isn’t already.

The vast majority of America’s gyms closed their doors in March, along with other non-essential businesses, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The White House’s guidelines for “opening up America again” suggest that gyms should be among the first non-essential businesses allowed to reopen, and many state and local governments have done just that: Gyms are now open, often with restrictions, in about half of all U.S. states and counting.

Whether that’s safe at all is another matter. What does working out at the gym—that palace of sweat, heavy breathing, and germs—look like right now?

“It’s a different world,” said Craig Pepin-Donat, an executive at Crunch Fitness, who joked that he has gone from working in the gym business to working in the virus business. Crunch, like many other fitness companies, has posted information for customers about the changes they can expect at its gyms on its website.

And the changes start before you even arrive. According to Jim Thomas, a consultant who specializes in gyms, many gyms are now asking customers to book appointments in advance, sometimes through an app, rather than just show up. This also may include asking customers to fit their workouts into an hour or another finite period of time rather than letting them stay as long as they want. (Thomas classified those wanting to work out for two hours or more as people with “a good problem to have.”)

Scheduling this way enables the gyms to follow one of the most common edicts of states’ and local governments’ guidelines for reopening gyms: limiting the number of people inside them at any given time. The specifics vary. Texas, for example, allowed gyms to open on May 18 at 25 percent capacity. In a survey, ClassPass, a subscription service that allows members to book places in classes or time at gyms, found that 49 percent of the businesses it partners with planned to reduce capacity by half, according to Kinsey Livingston, the company’s vice president of partnerships.

Interpreting the government’s rules and restrictions isn’t always straightforward. “It gets very complicated, because some groups don’t agree,” said Anthony Geisler, the CEO of Xponential, which owns Club Pilates, Pure Barre, and other fitness studio brands. “You don’t have alignment between the president of the United States, the governors, the mayors, the boards of supervisors, and the health departments. You end up with a bit of the wild, wild west out there.”

“What we’re telling all of our clients is whatever the state is asking you to do, let’s do just a little more,” Thomas said of the gyms he works with.

Some gyms that didn’t have touchless check-in systems have scrambled to implement them in time to reopen. Many have instituted temperature checks at entry and are also asking customers and employees to certify that they aren’t experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.

Pepin-Donat said that Crunch Fitness employees are required to wear masks and gloves, but exercisers won’t be (unless a state or local government says otherwise). That’s also what Orangetheory will be doing at its gyms, according to Kevin Keith, the company’s chief brand officer. At Equinox, “Members will be required to wear face coverings all times in the club, except while vigorously training,” the company said on its website, somewhat confusingly.

Many gyms are closing locker rooms for now, so gymgoers are advised to arrive in their workout clothes. Equinox is keeping its locker rooms open but plans to “disinfect member lockers using electrostatic sprayers after each use.” Another basic gym utility that’s had to be rethought is the water fountain: The ones that use a sensor to fill water bottles are OK, but the ones that are activated by touch aren’t, for obvious reasons.

Gyms have taken different approaches to spacing out customers. Pepin-Donat said that all Crunch gyms were given a collection of 70 new signs to hang throughout the gym. Some inform customers of new protocols, and others mark how far away they should stand from each other. Where necessary, equipment has been moved around or roped off to allow more room between customers. If group fitness classes are allowed to go on, spacers on the floor show people where to stand. But instructors know not to offer hands-on adjustments or encouragement. “Obviously, the concept of high-fiving is gone,” Pepin-Donat said. “Even fist bumps. It’s a six-foot air high-five.”

Geisler, of Xponential, pointed out that fitness studios offering classes may have an advantage over larger gyms. “What’s great about boutique vs. a big box is obviously it’s very small,” he said. “People come in and use just one piece of equipment.” Less touch translates to less risk and less cleaning and disinfecting.

Cleanliness is more important than ever—a ClassPass survey found that Americans consider sanitation practices “overwhelmingly the [No.] 1 factor that will help attendees feel safe”—and gyms have been vocal about their stepped-up routines. Some are closing a few times a day to allow for more deep cleans. At Crunch, more sanitation stations are available throughout the clubs, and they’re equipped with wipes and disinfectant spray. “In some of our gyms, they’re lining them up so somebody can take a spray bottle and hold it with them through their workout,” Pepin-Donat said. “It’s their own personal spray bottle.” Elsewhere in the sanitation and prevention realm, Geisler said Xponential studios have been outfitted with air conditioner attachments to filter the air, as well as fog machines that spray material thought to kill the virus.

There’s also the question of what’s going on with your gym membership, if you have one—are you still paying for that? Starting when? Many gyms have put information about billing up on their websites, but it’s probably best to check with your individual gym. As for ClassPass, “We’re not planning to unfreeze memberships until a market is absolutely, completely open,” Livingston said. “We don’t want anyone to feel pressured to go back to studios.”

“Our policies and rules are the best that you can possibly execute and implement in a gym setting,” Pepin-Donat said. “As an enthusiast and a 40-year fitness professional, I would absolutely feel comfortable going into any of our gyms.”

Safety is definitely paramount in gymgoers’ minds. But they wouldn’t be gymgoers if they didn’t have other concerns, too. As Orangetheory’s Keith put it, “They’re worried they’re out of shape now.”