LENOX — Members of fitness centers, gyms and personal-training salons, keen on resuming their health and wellness regimens, can look forward to gradual reopenings this month under Gov. Charlie Baker's phased restart of the state's economy.
Meanwhile, outdoor fitness classes, with certain restrictions, have been allowed, under phase one, since May 25.
At Lenox Fit, owner Suzanne Merritt, an unofficial representative of the county's fitness sector, is offering a limited schedule of yoga and spinning classes under a 30-by-30-foot tent, with no more than 10 participants at a time, including the instructor.
"Everybody has a safe space, which is socially distant, to work out in," she said. "Already, every class we've had has been well-attended, and it's gaining momentum."
Since she closed the fitness center March 17 to comply with state mandates, Merritt acknowledged, "the impact has been devastating; not just to me, but to all the small businesses in the area." She estimates her lost revenue at $200,000 to $250,000.
Before the shutdown, Lenox Fit had about 450 annual members, with up to 300 seasonal members in the spring and summer. Merritt had to furlough several employees but retained her independent-contractor instructors for online fitness classes.
Rather than the state's original plan to delay all services until later this summer, she described the revised phase-by-phase, gradual reopening of fitness centers as the safest way to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
"That sets more of us up for success," she said, "as we get used to dealing with each issue along the way. I think opening the doors all at once would have been a recipe for disaster, and it wouldn't have been safe for the visitors or the staff."
Her widely circulated letter to the editor published May 22, co-signed by owners of 10 other Berkshire fitness businesses, was sent to Baker, as well as Berkshire lawmakers. The letter called for "a structured opening plan that includes an earlier roll-out of the many safe options" beginning with appointment-based fitness, with a full-scale opening at a later date.
Under Baker's latest guidelines, appointment-only personal training with only one client — or two from the same household — will be allowed inside a facility at a time, in step two of phase two, which begins Monday.
When phase three begins, no sooner than June 29, fitness centers and health clubs can open, except for saunas, hot tubs and steam rooms, delayed until a later date.
The phase three reopenings include cardio/weight rooms/locker rooms/inside facilities, fitness studios (yoga, barre, CrossFit, spin classes, general fitness studios), locker rooms/shower rooms, indoor common areas, indoor swimming pools, indoor racquet courts and gymnasiums.
During a recent interview with The Eagle, Merritt made these additional points:
Q: Can you describe how the shutdown affected your business since mid-March?
A: I have substantial mortgage payments — two of them — and several months prior to this, I took out an extra bit of cash from the equity I have to move forward on a cryotherapy project that I'm doing. So, it couldn't have been more poor timing, frankly, but I'm still moving ahead with it and we're completing the renovations and, hopefully, launch that early to mid-summer. Hopefully, it will be popular with all the fitness enthusiasts in the Berkshires.
Q: Did you need to seek mortgage payment delays to tide you over?
A: Lee Bank has been wonderful to work with; they've assisted throughout with the Payroll Protection Program and the EIDL loan [Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration]. They put our commercial business loan to an interest-only loan right now, and my SBA loan has let us off the hook for six months entirely. So, I'm hoping we can pick back up again.
Q: Did the Payroll Protection Program work for you?
A: My personal opinion is that everybody needed quick money, and they've put a lot of restrictions on it, it's very specific. All the people who work for me as employees want to be back at work, but I don't think it's fair to ask an employer to bring people back when there's nothing for them to do.
The Payroll Protection Program is asking us to pay our full staff, whether we need them or not. So, it's a challenging situation to make sure I'm meeting all my requirements as an employer.
Q: Have you been able to plan sufficiently in advance for gradually resuming fitness activities and services?
A: I don't know how business owners are supposed to have a plan in place when they're given no guidelines; we've been trying to follow everything to the letter of the law, and yet with such vague and general statements, we don't have a lot to go on.
We're hanging on a limb, waiting for information [about phase three]. They're really restricting us, but that was to be expected, and I'm just glad to be able to open again.
Q: Are you reasonably confident that you'll come through this in solid shape with the strength of your business, able to pick up where you left off with your plans?
A: I'm very hopeful, I really am, I have very strong infrastructure. But, I'm also a realist. If we have to shut down again, I don't know how any of our businesses will survive. If we're able to remain open and gain momentum over the next year, I think we'll be all right, we have such a strong foundation and a great following, a wonderful staff with fitness professionals, and we work as a team.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.