Bay Area gym owner prepares to reopen, hopes to do so soon

The fitness industry is California starting to flex some muscle over being closed. 

Some gym owners are filing suit, a few are openly defying orders, and others are banding together.   

All agree there is nothing "non-essential" about the benefits of exercise.  

"We're in the business of health and everyone is talking about health," said Adam Kovacs, whose Sonoma Fit company has three gyms, in Sonoma, Petaluma, and Novato. 

Friday, he and several employees were measuring and marking off 7-8 foot areas at the Petaluma facility.

"We are creating different zones," explained Kovacs, pointing to bright yellow tape on the floor, designating zones around pieces of equipment. 

It is a literal re-shaping of how his gym will operate. 

"There is no cross-contamination because the equipment stays within the zone," declared Kovacs.

He plans to allow only a limited number of gym members in at one time. 

They will check-in on an app, and bring their own towels.

The restroom will be open, but no showers will be available. 

They will have time limits in each zone, and as they finish, they buzz a staff member who sanitizes the equipment as they leave it. 

"By the time the next member gets here, they have a clean space to work-out," said Kovacs. 

With 4,500 members and 150 employees, Sonoma Fit is getting ready for a re-opening- still in limbo.  

"I'm frustrated, angry, and anxious, because when we ask how much longer, there are no answers, it's like this unknown," said Kovacs.

"We have invested our life and soul into this business and we're getting no guidelines." 

Around the country, less restrictive states are allowing gyms to re-open, with many of the same protocols California will likely adopt, such as wearing masks and taking temperatures at the door. 

But California's vague timeline has some impatient operators, from Sacramento to San Diego, risking arrest and fines for reopening early. 

Other fitness chains have united in a bid to accelerate approval.   

"I'm reaching out to regulators to be proactive, and let them know what we think would work best, " said Randy Karr of the newly formed California Fitness Alliance. 

"But we also still want the public health officers of the counties to bless what we're doing."

Until health officers come around, people who routinely hit the gym are on their own, working out in parks or backyards, or using online sessions to exercise in virtual groups.

Many gyms have pivoted to zoom sessions, but admit the the energy isn't the same. 

"We have a lot of people who are ready to come back, it is that sense of community, and people miss their workout buddies," said Jenny Kovacs, Sonoma Fitness co-founder. 

"People want to leave their house, they're tired of working out in the living room."

Gyms like Sonoma Fit are fortunate to have outdoor space, and the option of moving some equipment outside for classes.

They expect that members will have concerns about ventilation and air flow, as well as social distance and cleanliness. "We can easily open and maintain protocols and people will be safe," said Jenny.

"We have mapped this out and we have our own phases because we think we're going to be living with this for a long time." 

Fitness centers fall into stage 3 of reopening in California, along with sporting events, movie theatres, hair and nail salons, and church services. 

But the Kovacs say rather than a full-stop on their profession, it makes more sense to fine-tune the standards and move away from "essential" versus "non- essential."  

"Scrap that and come up with safe, safer, and safest businesses," said Adam, "and if a business can comply you open, and if you can't comply you stay closed."    

For now, Sonoma Fit moves forward with the reforms it hopes will satisfy inspectors when the time comes. 

"We want that checklist, we want to know how to comply, tell us what we can we do and we'll do it!," exclaimed Jenny.

Governor Newsom has hinted that Phase 3 re-openings are possible in a month or so, depending on how the pandemic progresses.