Small gyms will close without government support, accommodations warns fitness group

Small gyms in Ontario have a warning for the provincial government: lump us in with with larger gyms for reopening regulations and countless independent operators will close.

Smaller gyms better equipped to manage distancing, says fitness studio association

Limitless Performance has been running physically distanced workouts in its parking lot since the Stage 2 reopening, as a way to keep operating in some capacity. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Small gyms in Ontario have a warning for the provincial government: lump us in with with larger gyms for reopening regulations and countless independent operators will close.

The reality is that scores of small, local gyms have already shut their doors, unable to survive the pandemic, says the Ontario Independent Fitness Studio Association. 

The group represents about 100 gyms throughout the Greater Toronto Area, Waterloo region, London and Windsor, and is calling for more government relief for the industry before the situation becomes worse.

It's asking small gyms be put in their own category, separate from their larger counterparts, allowing them more tailored rules around how many people can use the facilities while safely distancing.

The association argues that unlike big-box gyms, small gyms have a more personalized fitness experience and are better able to manage distancing requirements. And even though opening at 30 per cent capacity may be sustainable for a larger gyms, it would cripple smaller players, it says.

"If [capacity] is too low, I feel that some gym owners will not open, because at that point they'll just be losing money," said Alex Kucharski, a director with the Ontario Independent Fitness Studio Association.

"We're already suffering. Relief measures haven't always applied to our industry, so a lot of us have been left out of those things," said Kucharski.

Gyms will likely be part of Stage 3 of the province's reopening plan.

Brittany McLean (front right) and some of the members of her gym before it closed at the start of the pandemic. (Submitted by Brittany McLean)

'Lost 98 per cent of memberships'

Brittany McLean and her boyfriend Aaron Lukasik opened an F45 gym in Kitchener in February, just weeks before the shutdown in Ontario.

They had 140 members, but the pandemic hit the business hard.

"Literally the moment we shut our doors, we lost 98 per cent of memberships. People can't afford it or were confused about what was happening," said McLean.

Since they had been open for such a short time, McLean says they didn't qualify for government supports.

So they pivoted to online offerings. It's been enough to stay afloat, but the pair is anxious to get back in the studio. They say their small gym, which uses a circuit station where everybody brings their own equipment and gets their own taped-off zone, is much safer than larger gyms.

"We have full control of what's happening in studio at all times," said McLean. "We always have two trainers in studio watching what's going on so we can control safety protocols."

The Fitness Industry Council of Canada, which represents large and small gym operators, has said gyms of all sizes will be focused on being "as careful as possible when reopening and ensuring that members feel safe in the environment of our clubs/studios."

'The gym is our life'

The stakes were high for Adam and Michelle DeJong when the pandemic hit.

They say Limitless Performance, which they opened eight years ago in Kitchener, is at the core of who they and how they live their lives.

"The gym is our life and the community is our family," said Adam DeJong

"Most people call it their second home," said Michelle DeJong.

They continued to pay rent, but weren't able to access the building at first. Like many other small studios, they've offered online classes.

Adam and Michelle DeJong had to consider what the future of their gym would be at the start of the pandemic. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Then after Stage 2 took effect last month, the DeJongs started running distanced workout classes in the parking lot of their gym until they're able to fully reopen.

Even though they feel the outdoor classes are a step in the right direction, Adam DeJong says he hopes the government considers relief measures for smaller gyms.

"With limited number of members using the space at a time, revenue and membership base is not going to be where we expected it to be probably for  along time," said DeJong. "[We'd appreciate] some sort measure or subsidy supporting that until we get back to what we're calling the new normal."

Government says it's 'finding solutions'

CBC News asked the Ontario government for a response to these calls from small gyms for support, and if it will consider different accommodations for independent, smaller, operators as compared to larger gyms.

In a statement, Prabmeet Sarkaria, the associate minister of small business and red tape reduction, said it has held more than 80 roundtables since the pandemic began with small businesses across the province — including small gyms.

"We are quickly working through issues like these and finding solutions that are workable, make sense, and keep Ontarians safe," the statement said.

If supports aren't introduced, Kucharski says changes will come fast.

"You'll see a lot more gyms closing in your communities and a lot less access to fitness and the ability to improve your physical well being."

In the meantime he says his association and the owners of the independent gyms it represents will be watching closely. 


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