HUDSON COUNTY, NJ - For nearly three months, local fitness centers have faced an ultimatum: adapt to the new normal or join the 100,000 small businesses shuttered nationwide as a result of the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Gyms and yoga studios were among dozens of nonessential enterprises suspended by New Jersey’s stay-at-home order in March, leading some to start streaming classes to avoid bankruptcy. These measures only partially offset overhead costs and the loss of clients unwilling to continue their memberships.
“The hardest thing is just being able to convince everybody that [training online] is actually just as good if not a better workout than they’re getting…in the studio,” Mike Stanlaw, owner of Stanlaw Fitness in Bayonne, said. Despite never previously attempting a remote gym training session, Stanlaw has transitioned entirely to Zoom and Facebook Live.
Stanlaw said his total customers plunged from roughly 250 members before the outbreak to around 60 as of May. He recalled noticing a handful of regulars wearing masks in late February as coronavirus cases skyrocketed overseas, but never thought the disease would impact his gym.
In recent weeks, photos have emerged of Chinese fitness clubs modified for social distancing. Plexiglass dividers separate runners on treadmills, face coverings shield weightlifters’ mouths, facilities limit overcrowding by slicing capacity. Stanlaw expects to use similar protocols to mitigate against spreading germs.
“We had 15, 20 people regularly in most of the classes, and now it’s definitely going to get cut down to probably about six to eight people,” Stanlaw said. “We’re going to make sure the social distancing is there, there’s going to be a lot of hand sanitizing, Lysol wipes everywhere.”
Like Stanlaw Fitness, Kate Lombardo’s Hudson Yoga Project in Hoboken suffered a severe departure of customers over the last few weeks. Lombardo estimated that she had 700 students in February but said 25 percent of her monthly members cancelled their subscriptions with a 70 percent decline in yoga class package sales.
“We are seeing at this point two, three months later that…for a small studio, what people are willing to pay for an in-person membership is just not as high when you can get free yoga on YouTube,” Lombardo said.
The Hudson Yoga Company began uploading classes on its website in March, but Lombardo said popular Peloton stationary bikes and mainstream studios have undermined her income. Their convenience and friendlier prices outcompete her yoga boutique, which charges up to $180 for a monthly membership and $99 for five streamed classes.
Lombardo believes she will publish online courses long after the pandemic’s end. Whenever she reopens, Lombardo said she will cut class sizes, have customers bring their own yoga mats, and require that everyone cover their faces until a vaccine becomes available.
But owners like Deb Peveler, who runs Bohoyoga in Bayonne with her husband, are less optimistic about the future of yoga.
“I think it could be that yoga will be something that’s done basically online or in an outside kind of setting,” Peveler said. She speculated that the fear of contracting COVID-19 could render traditional studios obsolete.
Peveler described that Bohoyoga—which holds classes through Zoom and Facebook Live—had just 20 customers prior to the lockdown and has never experienced consistent profits. Subscription-based streams and teaching in parks would eliminate brick and mortar expenses while catering to clients susceptible to harsher complications from the virus.
“A lot of my members are older people and my studio was small, and so it was scary,” Peveler said. “And I wanted to make sure that they weren’t going to get sick if I could help it.” Peveler explained that roughly half of Bohoyoga’s patrons are over 65 years old, and she suspects the coronavirus will drive those senior citizens to stop taking yoga in person.
Unlike New Jersey’s fitness spaces, physical therapy practices are still permitted to operate. But some have seen a steep drop in business over the last few weeks.
“I went from 100 patients down to 30 at the peak of the pandemic, and now across clinics we’re probably seeing about close to 60 again,” Jaclyn Fulop, director of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, said. Fulop initially could not afford her payroll of 30 physical therapists and laid off 24 between her locations in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken.
Fulop’s staff is back to 18 therapists, with her patients scheduling “pretty much all telehealth” appointments. At her clinics, Fulop said customers receive temperature screenings, masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Fulop added that Exchange Physical Therapy never books more than three patients at once and offers one-on-one sessions without anyone else in the room.
Not all physical therapists have found a balance. Dr. Michael Russo’s NJIB clinic in Bayonne has stayed shut since the lockdown started, unable to switch to online rehabilitation.
“We treat a lot of our Medicare population and [telehealth] just wasn’t a good fit,” Russo said. “We reached out to all of them, asked if they were willing to do something like that…but there wasn’t a lot of interest in it.”
Russo assessed that 70 percent of his roughly 80 visits per week were over 65 years old. He said he eventually intends to branch into telehealth to better diagnose anyone from senior citizens to student athletes.
And to maintain proper hygiene in his clinic, Russo proposed installing barriers between pieces of equipment, mandating masks for all staff and patients, and holding just one appointment per hour.
Stanlaw, Lombardo, Pelever, and Russo could be part of New Jersey’s “Phase 3” for reopening, which allows most activities “with significant safeguarding” according to a plan unveiled in early May. From a public wellness standpoint, they understand the importance of caution. But from a financial perspective, they feel the pressure of mounting bills and shrinking revenues.
“I don’t know any business that can be closed for five or six months and survive,” Lombardo said.
Know a story we should share with readers? Email editor Steve Lenox and tell him about it.