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Chicago Gyms Reopen, But Coalition Asks City To Allow 50 Percent Capacity, Optional Masks

Chicago has stricter restrictions for indoor gyms, including mandatory face masks and a 25-percent capacity cap.

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CHICAGO — Gym and fitness studios have the green light to reopen Friday for indoor training, but some are choosing to keep the doors closed while others are urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot to loosen restrictions.

A business alliance was formed to ask Lightfoot to let Chicago gyms operate under the same guidelines as those throughout the rest of the state, including allowing 50 percent capacity and optional face coverings.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s guidelines allow for cities to enforce stricter guidelines, and Chicago opted to restrict fitness centers to 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer. Classes of up to 100 are allowed outdoors if proper social distancing can be maintained. The city already allowed one-on-one personal training and outdoor classes during Phase 3.

And unlike the state guidelines that allow mask wearing to be optional, Chicago is requiring everyone indoors to wear one unless they have a disability that makes it impossible.

All people inside a gym must maintain a six-foot distance and equipment must be separated by six feet, or three feet with an impermeable barrier separating the equipment.

Water fountains are permitted, but restricted to filling up water bottles. Signs must be placed throughout the fitness center to remind visitors of the new protocols.

Faced with the financial squeeze after remaining closed for months, a group of small boutique fitness centers created a business association and called on Chicago to mirror the looser state guidelines, rather than the stricter rules set forth by Lightfoot.

The Chicago Boutique Fitness Alliance is made up of small gyms across all 77 Chicago neighborhood areas and claims to employ 25,000 fitness workers.

David Blitz, co-founder of the alliance and CEO of Studio Three, which has locations in River North and Lincoln Park, said the alliance has close to 200 groups and is still growing. It was formed to “actively shape the protocols” around reopening guidelines in the city and state.

They want Lightfoot to follow state protocols that allow fitness centers to reopen at 50 percent capacity and for mask wearing to be optional, citing a statement from the World Health Organization that face masks should not be worn while exercising.

“We consulted with a lot of medical professionals and ultimately I think they’re torn, but … depending on the level of intensity, I think it is very difficult to work out with a mask,” he said. 

“A lot of our customers are telling us that they’re going to wait to come to the gym until they do not have to wear a face mask,” he said.

Allowing a higher capacity would be a vital source of income for clubs that have been closed for months, he said.

“Given all those measures, the safety measures that we’re taking … we’re vigilant in our ways,” he said. “And I think 50 percent is more than reasonable.”

Blitz’s Studio Three will begin outdoor classes Friday and will resume indoor classes next week.

However, the lurking virus changed the business model of a gym on the South Side.

Michelle Shaner, director of operations at D-3 Boot Camp, 125 E. 26th St., said they made the decision to keep their indoor facility closed throughout the summer. They will continue to teach online classes and outdoor fitness in their parking lot.

“People are sweating and touching different things, and so we know how important it is to keep everything … super clean, and we can only keep things so clean and do so much,” she said.

With new COVID-19 cases spiking elsewhere in the country, Shaner said “We don’t really see the encouragement to go back to normal.”

A typical class size at D-3 is between 20 and 30 people, but it’s been down to less than 12 during the last few weeks of outdoor classes. They record the classes and offer members the option of joining in outdoors or from home.

“There’s some people that don’t want to come back, or you know, want to come back if there’s only a few people in the class. So we’re giving them options,” she said.

The months of uncertainty didn’t just hit gym owners, but also personal fitness instructors who lost touch with their clients.

Trent Thenhaus went from seeing 35 clients a week to zero when the pandemic first hit. He shifted to virtual training, but it just wasn’t the same.

“It’s very, very hard to give anybody some specialized training when it’s over a video,” he said. “Or if you go through a group, you’re not there to really see the full form, there to be motivating. … Everybody kind of adapts and did the best they could.”

Thenhaus said he’ll transition back to indoor classes, but the biggest challenge will be convincing his clients to return to the gym. 

“The hard part is, there’s still that fear, we haven’t come up with any cure or anything like that. It’s not like the virus has magically gone away. So you have to make that sacrifice, you’re gonna wear a mask and really focus on trying to clean everything.”

On Tuesday, Thenhaus was leading a class at Eckhart Park in West Town. The group’s membership has remained steady over the last year and he was happy everyone returned when outdoor classes began. He expects they will have the easiest transition back indoors because of that familiarity.

“We’ll try and follow the safest guideline we possibly can, and just try to get through this,” he said. “Ultimately, I want to make sure that I’m not going to ever make anybody sick and don’t want to help contribute to anybody getting sick. So I try to be as safe as I possibly can.”

Shaner and Thenhaus both said a visit to the gym is about more than burning a few calories. Those who train in small groups develop a bond that becomes like a second family.

“People are very excited to have the energy of being able to work out again outside of their home, it’s a different kind of motivating factor,” she said. “There’s a lot of personal relationships that have been formed, and people are missing each other.”

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