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Feb. 3, 2023

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Gym owners hope new year brings in new members, despite COVID omicron variant


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Most years, the fitness studio Ohio Strength sees an uptick in membership in January, even though owner Ryan McFadyen doesn’t offer a New Year’s discount.

But McFadyen is unsure what to expect in this year with the omicron variant spreading through the country.

“The business cycle hasn’t been normal for the past two years with COVID,” McFadyen said. “I feel like some of the New Year’s rush is suppressed.”

The uncertainty drove him to change his usual post-New Year’s business plan.

“I’m not going to spend as much on advertising,” McFadyen said. “If people aren’t willing to come in, I’m not going to waste a bunch of money on that.”

Will omicron derail New Year’s resolution fitness plans for many?

The newest strain of the potentially deadly disease struck just as gym membership and attendance typically rise with New Year’s fitness resolutions.

“January is traditionally when Americans say ‘I’m going to lose weight and I’m going to exercise more,’ “ said Michael Levin, a professor of marketing at Otterbein University. “But (omicron) is not forecasted 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 ranks.

“March, April and May of 2020 absolutely crushed us,” said Teresa Moore, the corporate wellness director for the Fitness Loft in Columbus. And January of last year was uncharacteristically slow.

Moore, McFadyen and others in the industry are nevertheless optimistic in the face of the latest coronavirus surge. Moore said the Fitness Loft saw steady membership growth in 2021. Patrons are used to the gym’s mask and social distancing policies and are ready to return to some sense of normalcy, she said.

“Now we have a vaccine that’s readily available and I think most people have either had the vaccine, had COVID recently, or are just feeling safer now,” Moore said.

Gym memberships rise with COVID cases low, fall when cases high

The plight of workout studios wasn’t as well-publicized as that of restaurants and retail stores, but stay-at-home orders, COVID restrictions and a wary public put a big dent in the industry’s bottom line. The omicron variant means one more headache.

McFadyen estimates COVID cost him around $500,000 between Ohio Strength and a gym he owns in Orlando. He’s still paying down debt he accrued at the height of the pandemic.

“We haven’t had any trouble retaining our existing members,” he said. “But we’ve seen peaks and valleys in terms of interest from (potential) members.”

The valleys correspond with COVID surges and the peaks come when the virus recedes from the news, McFadyen said.

“We are very concerned about the COVID surge,” said Jim Hofstetter, who owns the 614Fitness studio on the North Side.

614Fitness usually doesn’t see a membership or attendance spike until several months into the year, but the studio is still doing everything it can to make patrons feel safe by thoroughly cleaning workout equipment and encouraging social distancing, Hofstetter said.

Exercise requires the kind of contact that infectious disease experts warned the public to avoid. And an infected person gives off more virus particles during heavy breathing, making the public particularly reluctant to patronize fitness studios.

Gym owners hope their members have become accustomed to coronavirus protocols and some see signs that this surge isn’t as bad as previous surges.

“Last year after Thanksgiving when everybody started getting COVID again we did see a huge drop off,” said Stephen Anderson, the general manager at Grandview Pro Fitness in Grandview Heights, Ohio. “This year so far we’ve seen pretty normal attendance here.”

While early death tolls and hospitalization rates suggest the omicron version of COVID is less severe than previous variants, infectious disease specialists say it’s too early to tell if it is less deadly.

“Omicron is decidedly more contagious, perhaps into double digit increases relative to Delta,” said Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious diseases professor and researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

People who have received booster shots have largely avoided infection, but the public should still be cautious, he said.

“Omicron still has great strength in numbers when considering its novel combination of increased contagiousness, asymptomatic spread, and vaccine evasion,” Cameron said. “In other words, omicron will reach more people, more often, and therefore steadily kill the at-risk in our communities.”

Greater Columbus gym owners say they still practice the virus mitigation techniques experts recommend. Fitness classes are socially distanced and masks are required or strongly encouraged.

“I can’t really speak toward other facilities, but at Studio 86 we’re still wearing masks, social distancing, and everything is getting cleaned,” said Heather Daye, who owns the fitness studio.

Ohio Strength added industrial-sized fans and a filtration system to recirculate air inside the warehouse-like space housing the studio’s equipment and workout space.

And a handful of gyms are changing their beginning-of-the-year marketing tactics. Studio 86 extended its 2022 New Year’s sale for six months in the hopes of catching the New Year’s resolution crowd after infection rates fall.

“People can still take advantage of a New Year’s offering but can come in when they feel it is safe to do so,” Daye said.