Work It Out

Pierson Holt, left, exercises with other members of F3 SF Peninsula, during an early-morning outdoor workout at Window on the Bay on Jan. 21, while stay-at-home orders were still in effect.

MONTAGE WELLNESS CENTER IN MARINA HAD A RHYTHM TO IT. Many mornings, a group of older women worked out together, rotating through some gentle stretching, light weightlifting on the basic circuit machines and slow walking on the treadmills. In the late afternoons and early evenings, a more “serious” group of weightlifters, men and women, hit the free weights on one side of the gym, while on the other, group fitness sessions encompassing everything from yoga to core to mobility went on. The cardio section was always busy, but never so busy that there was a wait to hop on a treadmill or elliptical to help walk and stride the stress away.

That, like so many other things, came to a crashing halt with the first pandemic shutdown order in March 2020. There was a respite in the spring, when gyms were allowed to reopen for a few weeks, with a lower-than-normal capacity, when it seemed the number of Covid cases was receding. And then it came to an end again when the state and county ordered gyms shut down in July.

Now, Montage, along with every other gym in the county, is in a holding pattern and eyeballing a future that is anything but clear. General Manager Chris Range, a certified trainer who runs both the Salinas and Marina locations for Montage, is in his office five days a week, answering the phones and making sure the facility is maintained – and waiting for the order that they can reopen in some form.

“We’re certainly hopeful it will be soon, but that was my same attitude in August and July,” Range says. “When we do open, we anticipate there will be some operating restrictions and some capacity restrictions. We may restrict the aquatics area, and childcare and group fitness may remain closed.”

And that might be OK. While Range couldn’t go into specific numbers, he says they’ve had some members cancel their accounts. They haven’t been charging anyone during the pandemic, but some members have opted to back away altogether, saying they would reassess their comfort levels before deciding if and when to rejoin.

The lament is familiar. Based on a series of surveys by RunRepeat, a national athletic shoe review site, the question every gym owner or operator has is, even if people are vaccinated, are they coming back to the gym?

“It’s the question everyone is banking on,” says Nicholas Rizzo, RunRepeat’s fitness research director. “The next three to six months will be key in determining how many gyms can survive and how many people will want to go back.

“Are gyms going the way of Blockbuster or game arcades?” Rizzo wonders. The advent of streaming and of gaming consoles rendered both obsolete. And with the closure of gyms, consumers have availed themselves of outdoor recreation like hiking, running and biking, and of home equipment both inexpensive (resistance bands and hand weights) and super spendy (Pelotons and Mirrors).

“Gyms have always been that pillar of fitness,” Rizzo says. “Even if you didn’t know anything, you know that you could go to a gym. But there’s been a massive influx of reaching people in their homes. Peloton is having an insane year, and now even gyms are trying to put together digital content to reach people in their homes.”

Montage exists in a different space than many other facilities, with the ownership of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula on its side, and a mission as a medical wellness facility. Unlike big box corporate gyms, which sign up as many members as they can in the hopes that the majority of people won’t show up most of the time, Montage caps its membership and encourages its members to come in multiple times a week.

But independent gyms and fitness studios are deep in the survival struggle. At Yoga Salinas, a small studio on the city’s South Side, owner Lucy Favaloro has had an understanding landlord who hasn’t demanded rent during the pandemic.

But with her lease up, and with the owner mentioning more than once that he might start asking for a maintenance fee, she’s now mulling pulling out of the space altogether. She believes that studios like hers will “lose older people, and people with more common sense,” and thinks more group fitness experiences will take place outdoors.

“I think the younger generation will forget in a few years and they’ll be fine, as long as there isn’t another pandemic,” she says. “I think the older crowds will stay home and do video stuff and the younger generation will step up and go back to their gyms or studios.”

Right now, gyms or studios are permitted to hold outdoor classes. Tiffany DiTullio, who by day is executive director of the health initiative Blue Zones Monterey County, is part owner – with seven other people – of the South Salinas gym Two Steps Ahead Performance Training. They obtained an encroachment permit allowing them to hold smaller classes outdoors, and have cut the number of classes per week from 20 to seven.

“We are all really fortunate that this is our hobby and not our livelihood,” she says. “As our income was reduced we drastically reduced expenses and we are still trimming every bit of fat we can so that when things go back to normal, we still have a gym to open.”

Ad hoc groups in which there is no set equipment and no fees have sprung up, getting people together outside for participant-led sessions.

On the Peninsula, F3 (for “fitness, fellowship and faith”) meets outdoors three times a week for 45-minute group workouts that could include body-weighted exercises like lunges, squats, pushups and burpees, or a lot of running with exercises in between – it depends on whoever volunteers to lead the class to decide. The local F3 is an offshoot of a national movement; Hunter Leighton, a money manager in Carmel, says the “faith” aspect isn’t required (it’s not something he personally embraces), and nobody is going to proselytize during workouts.

“The grand plan is it would be great to have a lot of these groups, from biking or running or hardcore workouts, and kettlebell workouts, and workouts for older people,” he says. It’s an encouraging atmosphere and all fitness levels are welcomed.

Saturday’s group meets at 7am at Carmel High; it’s the most popular day. Monday and Wednesday groups meet at 6am (yikes) on Del Monte Beach, and those are more sparsely attended.

“Some people are like, ‘This is for me, it’s free and outdoors and I like coming here and seeing people,’” Leighton says. “Others want to come on Saturdays and go to a gym during the week. I can’t say you don’t need a gym, but for me, I like the no monthly fee. It works for me.”

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