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Petaluma gyms move online during shutdown

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As California enters its second stage in reopening, Petaluma’s fitness industry is bracing to be among the last to resume normal business.

Since ordered to close mid-March, Petaluma’s more than a dozen small and locally-owned gyms have been working double time to find ways to adapt to strict social distancing requirements and attempt to stem revenue loss. Several are also plotting ways they might reconfigure their spaces to conform to looser restrictions once they do come, hoping for the best despite an unclear path forward.

“The gym industry is so volatile right now that we have no real way to predict what’s going to happen two weeks or two months from now,” said Petaluma personal trainer Rob Linn, who normally takes his clients to a brick-and-mortar gym for sessions.

Similar to entertainment venues and beauty salons, gyms are considered to be “high-risk” businesses under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-part reopening plan. While Newsom recently hinted that this next stage in reopening businesses “may not even be more than a month away,” timelines remain vague and subject to change as the coronavirus maintains its hold on California.

It’s a dance between preparing for the possibility of reopening and juggling new virtual outreach methods, one that Sonoma Fit owner Jenny Kovacs has been doing for her gym’s three Sonoma County locations in Sonoma, Novato and Petaluma.

Like many other gym owners across the state, she suddenly found herself mid-March locking the gym’s front doors and teaching herself how to use Zoom and camera equipment.

“We’ve been working like crazy trying to keep people engaged,” Kovacs said. “We first started with free YouTube classes, and then we went to Zoom, and now we have created this whole on-demand gym channel and made a recording studio.”

The 20,000 square-foot Petaluma location on Casa Grande Road normally serves about 1,200 members, of which Kovacs says roughly half are still active and participating virtually. Others have either freezed their accounts or canceled their memberships Kovacs says, many explaining they were either immune-compromised and hesitant to use a gym in the near future or suffering from the pandemic’s related financial crisis.

It’s been a fast-paced adaptation to the world of virtual workouts and coaching, as owners like Kovacs have had to find ways to try to keep as many clients as they can. In the world of YouTube and fitness blogs dispensing an avalanche of free workouts and fitness advice, gyms have also found themselves competing in a sphere they never thought they would have to.

In addition to launching a handful of virtual classes, Sonoma Fit also rented out “hundreds of thousands” of dollars of cardio equipment, weights and other exercise gear to clients at all three of its locations Kovacs said.

It’s a move 38 Degrees North CrossFit owner Mike Ward also took, personally delivering items to clients’ homes across Petaluma in the few days leading up to the formal shelter-in-place order.

He’s also transitioned to the strange space of virtual coaching, creating daily and customized workout programs each day for his clients. He said he has had to build additional flexibility and care for residents navigating work-from-home, assisting kids in online lessons and the sheer impracticality for some to exercise in limited spaces.

Unlike the gym environment where variables were more or less consistent, Ward has had to get crafty to serve every unique need, extending to gym fees.

“I suspended every athlete’s membership, it was a really challenging thing not knowing how long this was going to last,” Ward said. “But to ask people to continue to pay while struggling with mortgage, rent, or food was just too much to weigh on my conscience.”

Many gyms are offering options to freeze or suspend payments while sprinting to provide stand-in workouts and health advice during shelter-in-place.

Pamela Maldonado, owner of Renew Yoga on Petaluma Boulevard North, says revenue has dropped more than 50%, and is working with individual clients experiencing financial hardships. Like others, she has also had to rapidly shift gears and create virtual class offerings, currently used by about 200 subscribers.

“We hit the ground running, and it’s so different from how we teach. Instead of walking around, guiding people, it’s this whole new world of being in front of a camera,” Maldonado said. “We’ve made so many blunders and mistakes, it’s been a big learning curve, but we had to jump right in to make money.”

In addition to financial loss, Maldonado and Ward, both hands-on teachers as well as gym owners, expressed sadness over feeling disconnected from clients they’ve known for years. Maldonado counted several people she’s known and practiced with for the entirety of her studio’s 18 years. Ward said he only realized a few weeks into shelter-in-place that he had been working alongside a core group of clients and employees nearly every day for more than eight years.

“Half of the 25 or so people that walked in our gym the first day are still here. One of the things I love to brag about is we’ve seen about seven marriages among our athletes and at least three of what I call ’38 Degree North babies’,” Ward said. “We really do support each other and become friends.”

Personal trainer Rob Linn’s financial losses have steadied over the past month, after an initial and severe decline the first two weeks of shelter-in-place. He said he lost 80% of his business in March, then had a few clients return, now making roughly half of what he did before the pandemic.

But he’s settling into what he thinks will be a long-haul, applying to unemployment to make up for lost revenue that he is anticipating will stretch onward for months.

“We’re up against multiple barriers to reopening gyms,” Linn said. “Long-term, I think we’re going to be okay. But we need to work to bridge this gap to make people feel comfortable to come back again, and meanwhile just help people stay moving and healthy.”

For the time being, gym-owners Kovacs and Ward are preparing for reopening, whenever that may be. In the absence of clear guidelines, both are experimenting with how they can reorganize their gyms and their exercise class systems to conform to anticipated health and safety requirements. These ideas range from spaced-out stations, outdoor workouts, small class sizes, advanced class registration and cleaners on stand-by to rapidly disinfect equipment.

“We’re expecting more rules and regulations will come out,” Kovacs said. “But we’re also trying to look ahead and gage to see what other cities and countries are doing and just figure it out on our own and prepare.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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