For local gyms and fitness studios, Christmas usually comes in January, when people flood in, flush with New Year's Resolutions, optimistically buying memberships.
But this year, as with so much else, the rise of the omicron variant has changed things. It's an especially difficult blow for the fitness industry to sustain after almost two years of pandemic stops and starts—not to mention that exercising while wearing a mask, while required by state law to help curb transmission of COVID, is no one's idea of an optimal time.
“January is typically this very busy month in studios,” says Beth Harp, operating co-owner of local yoga studio The People’s Yoga. “I'm not expecting that. When it comes to my cash projections for the year, I made some edits.”
Both the Southeast and Northeast locations of The People’s Yoga, closed their studio doors from March of 2020 to April of 2021, and the studios were hit hard financially. Harp’s goal for 2021 was to end the year with revenue down just 30 percent from 2019, and she says she was on track. Then came omicron.
The studio managed to stay afloat throughout the pandemic thanks to monthly membership costs and online classes. And although in-studio attendance has further decreased since omicron, Harp says that the 50 percent of their client base who stuck with them through online times remain content with remote practice, and are continuing to practice online.
“I think that online has really inspired some students to take ownership of their practice, in a way that is beautiful to me. I want a yoga where students feel apt to choose what's best for their experience in the moment. And I do think that online has supported that habit. It's a mixed bag,” said Harp.
Dan Walton, co-owner and pilates instructor at Studio Blue in NW Portland says that COVID was the push that the studio needed to finally offer online instruction. In addition to the support and donations that they received from their gym community early on in the pandemic, online classes became the studio’s lifeline. Walton considers it a silver lining, in more ways than one.
“My parents have been taking classes with me for like two years now. And they live in Connecticut. So, it’s been amazing that my family can tune in,” said Walton. “I [also] teach pilates retreats around the world, so people I’ve met in other countries can now tune in, which is really pretty special.”
Both Harp and Walton say online instruction brought convenience and accessibility to their patrons throughout the pandemic. Whether people do not have access to transportation, or have a busy work schedule, online classes make it easy to find something that works for everyone.
Nevertheless, the demographics of who wants to be in-studio and who wants to be online are all over the place, says Harp.
“We do have a pretty large population of folks who are over the age of 50-55 and some of those folks are the ones who most wanted to be back in the studio,” says Harp.
Both The People’s Yoga and Studio Blue have been adhering to all CDC guidelines in terms of COVID safety. But according to Harp, a huge aspect of what makes in-person practice so safe is that people feel a real sense of responsibility towards the safety of their fellow students.
Evie and Joe Graham, co-founders of SE Portland’s Vega Dance Lab have also noticed this trend among their dance students.
“Our client base is very likeminded. We’re very similar in our approaches to COVID, so there’s a lot of self-policing that goes along with that, from our instructors to our student base,” says Joe. “So, if somebody’s feeling unwell or they’ve had exposure, they let us know immediately and stay away.”
For Vega Dance Lab specifically, there has been a drastic drop in registration for online classes, with about 80 percent preferring to return to in-person classes – if they can reserve a spot within the studio’s limited capacity, that is. According to Evie, Vega has had a surprising number and variety of new clients throughout the pandemic, many of whom had never even danced before.
“I think that people are realizing well, what have I got to lose? [It’s also] a way to infuse their lives with a social activity. You don’t see smiles, cause we’re all in masks but you see the other eyeballs and feel the physical energy of the camaraderie there. So, I think it’s really good mental health help for them,” said Evie.
Anton Fero, founder of North Portland gym and coaching facility Blue House Fitness, emphasizes the desire for togetherness and in-person activity among his clients, and the lengths that they went to to achieve it safely.
“Six months into the pandemic, people were like, ‘I don’t want to do anything on my own, I don’t have any motivation.’ So, we just offered the same types of classes we would offer inside, but outside. In the parking lot. In the rain. It was so intense, but people were like ‘I would rather do that than be on Zoom,” says Fero.
Fero believes that Blue House really found itself during the course of the pandemic, because it pushed the gym (once affiliated with Crossfit, now rebranded after some disturbing allegations about that brand) to think outside the box about how to re-brand themselves. Because of this, Fero says that the omicron outbreak hasn’t felt all that significant. They already have all the tools set up online for those who feel safest training at home, and are prepared if the CDC guidelines change again.
Walton of Studio Blue also sees the desire to practice in-person among his clients, saying that 75% of people are still wanting to participate in a group class. However, Walton acknowledges another popular in-between option for people who may not want to practice in a group setting during the omicron outbreak.
“In terms of January, and new business coming in for the mat room, it definitely seems lighter. We’re seeing a lot more people take advantage of privates, because all of our privates are in private rooms…..because they’re saying they don’t want to be in a group environment,” said Walton.
Ultimately, whether you’re deciding between in-person, private or remote workouts, or even just attempting to implement a new fitness routine this year, Harp encourages us all to be patient and listen to our bodies.
“You’re still in a pandemic. So, you might be tired. And if that’s true, do a great job of listening to yourself. Because time is wiggly. And if you don’t start now, there are cultures that have New Year at least four other times of year,” she says. “So, you can start later. Listen to your desires, find whatever it is that brings you joy.”