As gyms adapt to operate during a pandemic, some are struggling to get users back inside

Joshua Easterly, operations manager at Alaska Club East, uses a disinfectant fogger to clear the gym.
Joshua Easterly, operations manager at Alaska Club East, uses a disinfectant fogger to clear the gym on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Summer is always a difficult season for Alaska gyms. Snow melts off biking trails. There are rocks to climb. Mountains to hike. Fish to catch. And, with so much going on outside, it’s challenging for gyms to keep membership up.  

Add a pandemic to all of that, and, this summer, it’s harder than ever before. 

Gyms are adapting, but some still face financial strain as Alaskans opt out of indoor exercise. 

Greg Wahlman works out while wearing a face covering at Alaska Club East.
Greg Wahlman works out while wearing a face covering at Alaska Club East on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

For Anchorage resident Megan Edge, gyms are about a lot more than fitness. 

“I credit a lot of my mental health on my ability to go practice yoga and Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu in those spaces,” said Edge. “And then COVID happened and the world stopped”

Gyms temporarily closed down in March. 

Edge said when they were allowed to reopen about two months later, she went back. And she found something really good. 

“People were in some of the best moods that I’d seen them in, at the gym. Things that would normally frustrate them, they weren’t sweating,” said Edge. “There was just smiling and laughter, and I think overall people were just happy for the opportunity to be back and doing something that they love.” 

She said the facilities went above and beyond to be clean and safe. 

Still, when COVID infections started rising, Edge said, she decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Alaska, is currently seeing a surge in new cases, and many of those are in Anchorage. 

Edge is not alone. Alaska Public Media reached out on social media to find out if Alaskans were hitting the gym again this summer. Those who responded overwhelmingly said no. Generally, people said, they really miss it, and want to go back, but they just can’t justify the risk. 

But Robert Brewster, chief executive of the Alaska Club, said his gyms have done everything they can to reduce that risk and operate safely. 

Alaska Club Chief Executive Robert Brewster helps sanitize a workout station at Alaska Club East.
Alaska Club Chief Executive Robert Brewster helps sanitize a workout station at Alaska Club East on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

“When we were allowed to reopen we had everything in place and we were prepared to meet not only all of the guidelines initiated by the government, but also above and beyond that to make sure this was going to be, maybe, the safest place on earth,” said Brewster.  

Brewster said there has been no known COVID-19 transmission at the Alaska Club. 

And, the Anchorage Health Department says it has not identified any COVID-19 case clusters associated with gyms or fitness centers. 

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The Alaska Club has 15 facilities throughout the state — in Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Juneau.

Brewster said the club has taken a lot of steps to try to keep COVID-19 out. They have motion-activated doors and touchless check-in. When people arrive at the gym they get their temperature taken, and answer a few questions about recent activities. There are individual sanitizing bottles and required face masks. Gym equipment is spread out. And, Brewster said, the club has several high-tech systems built to kill viruses and sanitize surfaces. 

A few Alaska Club locations have outdoor fitness centers now, too. 

A new outdoor workout pavilion at Alaska Club East.
A new outdoor workout pavilion at Alaska Club East on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Brewster said financially, The Alaska Club is in a pretty good place. They had a strong 2019 and early 2020, and, despite spring closures and fewer users, Brewster said things are okay. 

“What’s been really redeeming for us is the bounce back,” said Brewster. “June actually turned out to be a pretty good month. And we anticipate that when the pandemic begins to improve, certainly by early 2021, then we will start to see a little return to normalcy.”

A sign at Alaska Club East notifies members that a section of the fitness center is reserved for people age 60 and older.
Alaska Club East has reserved a section of the gym for members age 60 and older. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

But, not all fitness centers are feeling as stable. 

At the Alaska Rock Gym, General Manager Siri Moss said it has been a really hard summer. 

“The months of closure, coupled with the low member return rate, has caused deep financial damage to our organization,” said Moss. “And all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope for a stronger fall season.”

Moss said when the gym closed, they automatically froze all memberships. Members won’t have to pay the regular fee until they’re ready to return. 

The rock gym reopened in May, and so far, that return rate has been low. Moss said only about a third of regular monthly members who have an automatic payment set up have come back. 

Like The Alaska Club, the rock gym has added a lot of new measures to try to keep the facility safe during the pandemic — reduced capacity, a brief health screening upon arrival, masks, Moss said. Climbers have to sanitize their hands in between each climb. And, the gym has made changes to the building’s HVAC system. Moss said now most of the air in the gym is coming from outside. 

Despite the precautions, Moss said gyms are struggling.  

“In the fitness industry, I think we have to overcome just the sense that people are in some building working out with sweaty equipment and poor air quality. So we have to work hard to overcome those biases, I think,” she said.

For Edge, it’s hard to imagine going back to her gyms until she sees a big decrease in COVID-19 case numbers. For now, she said, she’s trying to figure out what her new normal looks like when it comes to fitness, while hiking, biking, and playing with her new puppy.