Outdoor exercise class. (Image courtesy of Orangetheory.)

The places that help you stay physically fit are working to stay fiscally fit themselves during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some are improvising, using a parking lot as a fitness floor. But some gyms, health clubs, and workout facilities have closed. On Davis Street downtown alone, Tier One, Spenga, and Barre Code all are no longer in business.

An industry trade organization, The Illinois Fitness Alliance, says investment bankers predict 30% of health clubs nationwide will not make it out of the pandemic. That translates to 20,000 jobs in Illinois alone.

“It’s been a struggle,” says David Lanz, owner of Orangetheory Fitness on Central Street. Orangetheory is lucky enough to have a parking lot, so once the virus hit, Orange’s theory was to have workouts outdoors, weather permitting. “People love it,” Lanz says. This past weekend, Orangetheory had its “Dri Tri,” outside — a triathlon without swimming, that combined rowing, weight lifting and a 5k run.

Indoors, fitness centers in Evanston are covered by the state of Illinois’ Phase IV guidelines, which limits facilities to 50% of capacity.

Restrictions in the City of Chicago are tougher, although Mayor Lori Lightfoot just eased them a bit, which actually helps a gym here in Evanston.

Because it is owned by a Chicago company, with gyms there, the Evanston Athletic Club also follows the more stringent Chicago regulations — fewer customers and mandatory masks. “People have embraced that and feel safer,” said long-time EAC employee Marty Gaughan.

Chicago has just increased maximum indoor gym capacity from 25% to 40%, so Gaughan says EAC will follow that, which is still below what’s allowed in the rest of Evanston.

Gaughan says staff furloughs at Northwestern University, fewer NU students and fewer employees at the Rotary offices have all meant a lower number of members at the gym.

Lanz, of Orangetheory, says studies in Louisiana and Colorado have shown no correlation between going to the gym and getting COVID. In other words, he says, with proper precautions, the gym is safe.

Dr. Phil Thrush agrees. A pediatric cardiologist, Thrush says when the state shut down all non-essential businesses in March, “not having the gym was really challenging.” An Orangetheory member, Thrush says he lost 40 pounds working out over time.

“My wife and I had lots of conversations” about going back to the gym once it reopened, he says. “I kind of tiptoed back a little bit” when gyms reopened in June. But now, he’s comfortable enough to be a workout regular again, because of screening and cleaning … temperatures taken before going in, frequent wipe-downs of equipment and social distancing when indoors, as well as wearing a mask.

Molly Cinnamon, also a member of the same gym, feels the same way. The principal of John XXIII school in Evanston, Cinnamon says, “if it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t do it.” Cinnamon says working out is a form of stress relief as well as a way to stay in shape. “It’s not a vanity thing,” she says. “It’s a health thing.”

Evanston is actually getting a new workout facility, the Pilates Central Wellness Center, on Central Street. That business is relocating from Wilmette, a move which has been in the works for some time.

But other gyms nearby are shut for good. Equinox in Highland Park and Five Seasons in Northbrook are now on the list of COVID-related closings.

A business called RunRepeat, which caters to runners by evaluating shoes, has surveyed gym customers about going back to work out. Their survey shows only 31% of Illinois gym members have returned since the gyms reopened, and 60% members in Illinois have already canceled or are considering canceling their memberships.

The state has grants available for fitness facilities impacted by the pandemic, 500 grants of up to $20,000 each. However, details are not available on how many have been distributed so far. For some gyms, that money could be a lifesaver. For others, it may be too late.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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