By Beth Lawrence


As with everything during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fitness industry was impacted, especially after shutdowns forced businesses that did not provide critical services to close.

Between the end of March and September 2020 gyms, health clubs and other fitness establishments were shuttered completely to reduce the spread of the lethal SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for 755,000 deaths nationwide and 18,336 deaths in North Carolina to date.

During that time, gyms were forced to either rethink their business model or close completely. Some were able to pivot offering outdoor yoga, CrossFit or exercise classes or move classes online.

Jeanine Sowers of Fusions Fitness in Sylva could not make that change, so the gym and spa took the loss in revenue and held on until they could once again open the doors.

“We have made no money on the gym,” she said. “We contacted our members and let them freeze their membership so that they weren’t getting that month charged against their membership. We kind of extended everybody’s gym fees. They didn’t have to pay during those months.”

Scott Kennedy of Awaken Health & Fitness in Sylva also froze his membership payments during lockdowns. But he opened Awaken’s doors early using a loophole.

“I ended up reopening under the medical clause,” he said. “It really didn’t matter because people were just frantic and not getting out, not getting memberships.”

The Attorney General’s Office issued a letter interpreting two segments of Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 141 to mean that gyms could be opened to those who needed to work out for medical reasons per a doctor’s note.

Awaken has also been unable to recoup the approximately $40,000 in revenue lost during the early days of COVID despite early reopening.

When Fusions reopened, owners stuck to recommended standards such as requiring masks and social distancing and asking members to sanitize equipment between users.

Both Fusions and Awaken already offered wipes for members to clean equipment prior to the pandemic.

However, Awaken does not require masks.

The limited occupancy mandate did not impact Fusions greatly because even though the gym has a robust membership, there are never enough people in the facility at the same time to trigger occupancy guidelines.

“There was limited occupancy when we first opened, so we just made sure that people were cognizant of each other’s space,” Sowers said. “But it didn’t provide much of a problem because I think people were either eager to get back or they were very cognizant and just didn’t go in if someone else was in there. People kind of policed the gym attendance themselves; everybody kind of worked out like gentlemen and ladies.”

Awaken has not seen enough users returning to create an occupancy problem, but with a 24-hour cycle, occupancy would not typically be a problem.

“If you try to keep a gym open 24 hours a day, it cuts down on the actual people in there at one time because they can kind of set their own schedule,” Kennedy said.


Waiting list

Luckier than some, Fusions is beginning to bounce back. They have a waiting list because they imposed a moratorium on memberships while closed, and many of those waitlisted are still interested in joining.

“There is a demand back for the gym membership, and we have begun writing gym memberships again,” Sowers said.

The gym has not raised fees in order to recover from COVID losses.

According to the Global Health & Fitness Association, the health club industry lost 13.9 billion dollars between March and August of 2020.

The face of exercise changed completely during the pandemic, according to fitness industry researchers.

Exercise enthusiasts and others looking to stay healthy or find ways to cope with lockdowns began to invest energy and dollars in alternatives when traditional gym workouts became unavailable.

Run Repeat, a website that helps athletes find the best shoes for their sport using data and reviews, compiled statistics on the pandemic’s impact on industry trends.

Through a survey of 4,538 active people across 122 countries Run Repeat found that several alternatives saw growth during the pandemic, reviewer Nick Rizzo wrote.

Kennedy knows some clients who invested in home gym equipment.

“Maybe two people that I know of have actually just put a little weight equipment in their house,” he said.

Of those surveyed, 59 percent chose outdoor activities such as running, hiking and walking, an increase of 14.6 percent from early 2020 numbers.

Use of home gyms and equipment increased by 49.6 percent, and use of personal trainers and nutritionists grew by 47.5 percent.

Alternatives that were already trending such as workout apps, equipment tied to apps and online classes grew by 16.8 percent, Rizzo wrote.

A Google search shows approximately 10 gyms and fitness centers in Jackson County.