When CNN anchor Chris Cuomo announced his positive coronavirus diagnosis in late March, Americans were rapt as the usually robust newsman, ashen and quarantining in his basement, struggled with the then-mysterious virus that had brought schools, businesses, and air travel to a standstill. As for me, I thought about the gym.
Just weeks earlier, I had seen Cuomo at a Long Island training facility, where we both packed into a class of more than 30 people who circulated, panting and sweating and bumping into each other, from shared kettlebells to rowers. That day, I remembered that my usual self-satisfaction from exercising was tempered by an unfamiliar twinge of uneasiness that — in light of the encroaching virus — maybe I was acting recklessly rather than virtuously by hitting the gym. Then, almost overnight, the very spaces that millions of Americans for decades diligently patronized in noble, mostly uncontroversial pursuit of health and fitness, morphed into hazard zones.
Seven months in, the situation looks dire for gyms. The leading industry association, the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, estimates that Covid-19 will cause an industry contraction of $15.6 billion and that 25% of the nation’s 40,000 to 50,000 gyms will close their doors for good. It’s a sobering and sudden reversal of decades of uninterrupted, inevitable growth in brick-and-mortar fitness, valued at more than $30 billion earlier this year. Even as people increasingly shopped, dated, and worked online, fitness seemed like a final frontier of the IRL economy: It’s why big-box gyms were the last hope as anchor tenants for dying malls.
But in March 2020, Covid-19 changed everything. “It was like a thunderbolt,” says Rick Stollmeyer, founder and executive chairman of booking platform MindBody Online. “I remember it was Friday the 13th: 90% of our business activity went away all at once.” Gym and studio owners everywhere felt the pain. “Our revenue became obsolete overnight,” says Mimi Benz, founder and owner of SweatCycle, a Los Angeles-based heated indoor cycling studio with three locations. For Amanda Freeman, founder and…