Reopening amid COVID-19 requires investment for fitness clubs, studios

Phased reopening underway at several facilities this week

Cardio equipment on the second floor.

Last updated on May 26th, 2020 at 11:49 am

When Life Time Brookfield reopens to members on May 25, general manager John Dahman plans to spend a lot more of his time outside his office, personally sanitizing the hundreds of cardio and weight machines on the gym floor and making sure the club’s new safety protocols are upheld amid the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

“95% of our jobs will be the cleanliness of the club,” said Dahman in an interview this week with BizTimes Milwaukee.

Deep cleanings of the entire building are scheduled daily from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. as well as overnight, using a broadcast sprayer. Every 30 minutes during operating hours, each department will follow a checklist of high-touch surfaces to wipe down, from doorknobs to pens. Additional cleaning stations with spray bottles and hand sanitizer will be set up throughout the building for members, who are encouraged to wipe down equipment before and after use.

The 126,000-square-foot ‘resort-style’ health club is one of many fitness facilities across the state preparing to reopen with a set of new protocols and priorities around safety, having been closed since March under Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order.

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the order last week, businesses in many parts of the state were free to reopen immediately without government-imposed restrictions, about two weeks before the order had been set to expire. In response, a handful of cities and counties, including Milwaukee, adopted their own stay-at-home mandates and business restrictions.

Some area gyms have already begun a phased reopening, such as the Princeton Club in New Berlin, which opened its weight and cardio areas, tennis courts and indoor pool on May 20. Group exercise classes will restart May 26, with 24-hour operations resuming June 1.

The YMCA of Greater Waukesha County also reopened its four Waukesha County locations in Mukwonago, Waukesha, Menomonee Falls and New Berlin on May 20. Its two Milwaukee County locations, in Wauwatosa and Greenfield, reopen May 22 per county regulations. The organization said it has designed a phased reopening based on CDC guidelines. 

Life Time could have reopened last week, but Dahman said additional time was needed to re-train employees and prep the building properly, following guidelines laid out in the 400-page “playbook”¬†distributed to Life Time’s 155 clubs nationwide.

It contains protocols for operations in the new normal, from proper disinfection to social distancing, and has been frequently updated based on feedback from members at the 25 locations that have reopened in other states.

“We want to make sure it’s a very diligent process and we want to make sure that we’re bringing our members and our team members back to the safest environment possible,” said Dahman.

Many members have reached out saying they are excited to return to the club when it reopens, while others are more hesitant, Dahman said. Either way, the club has invested huge amounts of time and money getting ready.

“This health and fitness piece of their life has been missing for two and a half months and its something that, we know, if you’re trying to increase immunity, if you’re to take care of your body, your workouts are important,” he said.

Peter Goldman, owner of Milwaukee-based Elite Fitness Clubs and Chicago-based Lakeshore Sports & Fitness, has spent a total of $250,000 preparing to reopen his seven large-format health facilities so members feel safe and comfortable upon return, he said.

Elite announced earlier this week that its five area locations will reopen May 22.

Goldman, who purchased Elite in November 2019, said he saw the outbreak coming back in February, weeks before it hit the area. At that point, the group started stocking up on new cleaning devices and sanitary equipment to prepare for what they expected would “not be a closure, but would be instead just heightened scrutiny on cleanliness.”

He said those purchases included the $34,000 Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer, which recently arrived after being on back order since February, and another cleaning system, priced at $8,000 to $9,000, that uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria on surfaces. In addition, each club doubled its sanitation stations, from about 20 to 40, said Goldman.

When Elite reopens, all staff members will be wearing provided KN95 masks (China’s standard for the N95 respirator masks), and members will be asked to wear masks when entering and exiting the clubs.

Members looking for a little extra distance can also reserve a “workout pod,” which are 120-square-foot private one-person spaces containing one piece of cardio equipment and some free weights.

Goldman said the massive footprints of “mega clubs,” like Elite, allow for ample social distancing — he estimated the average size of the facilities to be between 120,000 to 130,000 square feet.

That’s why, unlike other gyms, Elite won’t limit capacity when it reopens. If crowding becomes an issue, the club will require online reservations. There will be, however, reduced capacity and reservations required for group fitness classes.

“You can get far away from other people in our clubs and you can work out easily there,” he said. “We might have 75 people in our clubs at any given time and you might not notice it because the buildings are so big.”¬†

Goldman said having the capacity to social distance (and sufficient resources to keep that space clean) is a major differentiator between health clubs and smaller boutique fitness studios these days.

But having less space and offerings to work with may also have its advantages.

“We have 15 minute cleaning intervals between each class we have throughout the day,” said Kevin Scharnek, Orangetheory Fitness Wisconsin developer and franchisee. “I think it’s going to be easier for a structured environment like that to manage that process, which is super labor intensive, verses the open concept of a big-box (gym).”

Scharnek owns all the Boca Raton-based Orangetheory studios in Wisconsin, except for its Mequon location, which reopens May 26.

His studios in Waukesha County will be reopening within the next couple of weeks, and he’s awaiting guidance from local officials on reopening his studios in Milwaukee County, which include Wauwatosa, Shorewood and the Historic Third Ward.

In addition to following respective local guidelines, all Orangetheory studios across the U.S. must meet a set of corporate criteria before reopening for classes, including stocking up on necessary supplies and training staff on new safety protocol. About 200 of the company’s 1,100 locations have reopened as of this week, said Scharnek.

Operating in the new normal will require modifications to Orangetheory’s 60-minute, high-intensity interval training classes. All treadmills, rowing machines and various strength-building equipment will be wiped down by staff before, after and during the class as members rotate from station to station. With class capacity cut in half, members will occupy every other piece of equipment to create safe social distance.

“That’s where I think the benefit is, to control that process because we have the class-based verses the random workouts,” said Scharnek.

While its studios have been closed, Orangetheory has offered its daily workout sessions via its website, free of charge for both members and nonmembers. It will continue the virtual offering as studios gradually reopen, knowing there are some members who aren’t ready to return to in-person fitness classes just yet.

But overall, Scharnek has confidence in the Wisconsin membership base.

“Based on what we’re seeing at other studios around the country, we feel really good that a majority of our members are going to come back and join,” he said. “The reality is, people have hopefully realized, ‘I need fitness in my life’… and having someone there who’s pushing you and motivating you is something that I’ve missed for sure.”

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.