Most years, Italian Village fitness studio Ohio Strength sees an increase in membership in January, even though owner Ryan McFadyen doesn’t offer a New Year’s Eve discount.
But McFadyen isn’t sure what to expect this year with the ommicron variety spreading through Ohio.
“The business cycle has not been normal with COVID for the past two years,” McFadyen said. “I feel like some of the New Year’s pressure is being suppressed.”
The uncertainty drove him to change his usual business plan for after the new year.
“I’m not going to spend that much on advertising,” McFadyen said. “If people don’t want to come in, I’m not going to waste money on that.”
Will Omicron derail New Year’s fitness plans for many?
The latest strain of the potentially deadly disease hit Franklin County, just as gym membership and attendance usually soar with New Year’s resolutions.
“January is traditionally the day Americans say, ‘I’m going to lose weight and exercise more,'” said Michael Levin, a professor of marketing at Otterbein University. “But (omicron) is not expected to peak in many parts of the country until mid-January.”
That could mean a slow start to 2022, just as gyms are rebuilding their membership numbers.
“March, April, and May 2020 absolutely crushed us,” said Teresa Moore, the corporate wellness director of the Fitness Loft at Schumacher Place. And January last year was unusually slow.
Moore, McFadyen and others in the industry are nonetheless optimistic in light of the latest wave of coronavirus. Moore said the Fitness Loft saw steady membership growth in 2021. Customers are used to the gym mask and social distancing policies and are ready to return to a sense of normalcy, she said.
“Now we have a vaccine that’s readily available, and I think most people have had the vaccine, have had COVID recently, or just feel safer now,” Moore said.
Gym memberships rise with low COVID cases, fall when cases high
The plight of Greater Columbus’ training studios was not as well known as that of restaurants and retail outlets, but take-home orders, COVID restrictions and an attentive public have left a big dent in business results. The ommicron variety means another headache.
McFadyen estimates that COVID has cost him about $500,000 between Ohio Strength and a gym he owns in Orlando. He is still paying off the debts he accumulated at the height of the pandemic.
“We have had no trouble retaining our existing members,” he said. “But we’ve seen peaks and troughs in interest from (potential) members.”
The valleys correspond to COVID peaks, and the peaks come when the virus recedes from the news, McFadyen said.
“We are very concerned about the COVID wave,” said Jim Hofstetter, owner of the 614Fitness studio on the North Side.
614Fitness usually doesn’t see a peak in membership or attendance until several months of the year, but the studio still does everything it can to make customers feel safe by thoroughly cleaning workout equipment and encouraging social distancing, Hofstetter said.
Exercise requires the kind of contact infectious disease experts warned the public to avoid. And an infected person releases more virus particles when breathing heavily, making the public particularly reluctant to patronize fitness studios.
Gym owners are hoping their members have become accustomed to the coronavirus protocols, and some are seeing signs that this increase isn’t as bad as previous increases.
“Last year after Thanksgiving, when everyone got COVID again, we saw a huge drop,” said Stephen Anderson, the general manager of Grandview Pro Fitness in Grandview Heights. “We’ve seen a pretty normal turnout here so far this year.”
While early death rates and hospitalizations suggest that the omicron version of COVID is less severe than previous variants, infectious disease specialists say it’s too early to say if it’s less deadly.
“Omicron is definitely more contagious, maybe in double digits compared to Delta,” said Dr. Mark Cameron, professor of infectious diseases and researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
People who have been given booster shots have largely avoided infection, but the public should still be cautious, he said.
“Omicron still holds great strength in numbers when looking at its new combination of increased infectivity, asymptomatic spread and vaccine evasion,” Cameron said. “In other words, ommicron will reach more people, more often, and therefore steadily kill the risks in our communities.”
Larger Columbus gym owners say they still employ the virus containment techniques that experts recommend. Fitness classes are socially distancing and masks are required or strongly encouraged.
“I can’t really speak to other facilities, but at Studio 86 we still wear masks, social distancing and everything is cleaned,” said Heather Daye, owner of the Clintonville fitness studio.
Ohio Strength added industrial-sized fans and a filtration system to recirculate air in the warehouse-like space that houses the studio equipment and training room.
And a handful of gyms are changing their marketing tactics for the start of the year. Studio 86 extended the 2022 New Year’s sale by six months in hopes of catching the New Year’s resolve after the number of infections plummeted.
“People can still take advantage of a New Year’s gift, but can come in when they think it’s safe to do so,” Daye said.