From yoga to climbing, four Denver gym owners discuss the pandemic and reopening

Workout equipment six feet apart. Hand sanitizer before every rock-climbing session. Outdoor classes, or fewer people than normal if inside.

These are just some of the precautions Denver gyms are following in order to reopen.

In early June, state health officials finalized reopening guidelines for gyms, fitness classes, rec centers and other indoor sports facilities, allowing them to operate at up to 25 percent capacity — or 50 people per room, whichever is less — to maintain social distancing.

Many gyms and studios reopened for the first time since March last week. Still, some owners aren’t sure how long they can survive on such a limited-capacity model.

Rise Nation’s Avrum Elmakis

“It’s all going to be small-group training until it’s not, and regulations vary in different counties, which is super frustrating as an owner because there’s no real consistency,” said Avrum Elmakis, owner of three Rise Nation gyms.

“We can have 30 people in a restaurant, but we can hardly have 15 people in a gym working out,” he said. “Gyms are important because it’s a lot of people’s way to relieve stress, and it’s surprising to see that that’s not valued as much.”

Here’s a snapshot of what some Denver gym re-openings looked like:

Rise Nation

An upright cardio machine. (Courtesy Rise Nation)

Rise Nation, which has three Denver locations, features 30-minute classes using upright cardio machines, set to upbeat music. Elmakis said the workout was hard to transfer over to Zoom, and after closing in March, the gym lost 50 percent of its members for various reasons.

“It’s not like business owners are saving and getting ready for a pandemic,” Elmakis said.
“From a business operational standpoint, we can’t do a boutique fitness class over Zoom because you need the machine.”

Rise Nation’s DTC, Cherry Creek and Highlands locations have been open at a limited capacity since May 21 for private training. The gyms started opening for classes on June 15.

Each Rise Nation Colorado location uses 25 to 35 Versa Climber machines, and Elmakis said half of the machines in each location are in use to enable patrons to stay six feet from each other.

Between each class, the machines are commercial-grade steamed, and the gyms have implemented an FDA and EPA-certified antimicrobial solution throughout the studios for further protection. Each instructor wears gloves and a mask, and each person who enters the studio is checked with a touchless, infrared thermometer.

“It’s added a lot of processes that weren’t there before,” Elmakis said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t a clean facility, but now the standards have changed dramatically.”

Core Progression

Core Progression’s limited group training model allowed founder Jon Cerf to open up his gyms earlier than most. The five Colorado locations reopened on May 9 with 10 or fewer people in each training session.

“For us, it’s business as usual; it was never a problem to control more than 10 people as a more exclusive boutique experience,” Cerf said.

While his locations were closed in March and April, Cerf said Core Progression began streaming classes and kept 70 percent of its member base active, which allowed him to pay his staff in full during this time.

Since reopening, he said 95 percent of Core Progression’s members have returned to the gym. Fewer than 10 people are allowed at a time in each studio, and everyone entering must answer a health questionnaire. Trainers wear masks, and the facility is thoroughly cleaned throughout the day.

Cerf said June might be the most profitable month in history. Core Progression has had a 75 percent increase in revenue year over year, largely as a result of new memberships.

“People are shifting to work out in a private place without crowds and distraction,” Cerf said. “Since we cap our membership at 200 (per location), it gives us better control of the conditions we are working with.”

The River Yoga

The River Yoga studio. (Courtesy The River)

The River Yoga, known for its usually packed yoga classes, reopened its Five Points and Golden Triangle locations for members only on June 15.

Owner Danielle Barbeau said the largest room in the studios can fit about 40 people comfortably and the largest class will accommodate 15 members.

Danielle Barbeau

“We were tempered in our expectations; we understand the challenge of reopening with the news about the uptick in coronavirus cases,” Barbeau said. “We prepared for full capacity in every class, but knew that seemed like a long shot given the state of the world.”

Each patron is required to bring their own yoga mats and props, and must stay six feet from others. For now, only members can attend. At The Lydian, an apartment complex in Five Points where the company has a studio, The River Yoga is hosting classes outside on the pool deck.

“People want a space to reconnect,” Barbeau said. “One thing we’re going to need is some collective healing from the trauma of the life we’ve been living.”

Barbeau said the studios lost nearly 50 percent of their members when they closed in March, but those that stayed were able to put their membership fee on pause. She added that Zoom livestream classes, which the company is continuing even as classes resume, helped keep members active and zen.

“We still have a fairly healthy membership base but nothing like before,” she said. “Reopening is not about returning to what was, but it’s about rebuilding something more sustainable and better while taking into account our new world.”

El Cap gyms (Earth Trek, Movement and Planet Granite)

Earth Treks’ Golden climbing gym. (Courtesy Earth Treks)

Denver climbing gyms, such as Earth Trek, Movement and Planet Granite, have had a harder time configuring a safe and healthy model amidst the pandemic.

The three gyms reopened June 22, and Jeff Ceccacci, vice president of operations for the gym’s parent company El Cap, said sanitization has been the company’s biggest focus.

Jeff Ceccacci

“It’s not practical to clean the holds of the walls or the climbing systems themselves,” Ceccacci said.

Instead, each climber will have to sanitize before each ascent. The gyms also have switched over to liquid chalk with alcohol content in them to minimize airborne transmission from loose powder chalk.

Climbers at each Earth Trek, Movement and Planet Granite location are required to reserve a two-hour climbing window prior to visiting.

“People have been able to recover and let their body rest in a way they don’t usually do,” Ceccacci said. “Now, I’m hoping people are ready to get back to practice and increase their comfort level.”

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