Gym: The new mask mandate is driving clients away from gyms. Courtesy photo

The reinstatement of an indoor mask mandate was a blow to many businesses, but for those in the fitness industry it felt more like a gut punch.

While most customers are fine wearing a mask at the grocery store and don’t mind donning it to walk to their restaurant table, several gym owners reported that their clients are much less willing to put it back on for a workout.

From the first day of the new mask mandate, Molly Niles Renshaw, the owner of Phoenix Classical Pilates, saw a drop off in sign ups for her classes. The Pilates company struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic using online classes and its small indoor space, and was just starting to build back momentum.

“Some people didn’t choose to come in until they could wear no mask because they feel like they can’t breathe and exercise, so I was finally getting the business back and starting to get busy again, and now already people have dropped off,” said Renshaw.

Prior to the return of mandatory indoor masking, Phoenix Pilates already required all clients to show proof of vaccination to attend a class. For Renshaw, this exacerbated the frustration of the mask mandate, which was implemented in response to the rise in cases and hospitalizations among mostly unvaccinated residents.

“I’ve always followed the protocols and I got vaccinated right when I could, but now I feel like I’m being punished for the sins of other people,” she said.

Bruce Bair, the owner of Santa Monica Yoga, also required all clients to show proof of vaccination prior to attending class.

From his perspective, the mask mandate is so inhibitive to business he has made the decision to shut down the studio again. For the time being, the business is falling back on its pandemic model of virtual classes and classes in the park.

“It’s really kind of heartbreaking. I do recognize that there is a real issue, so I don’t really blame the health department,” said Bair. “But I wish that on the local, state, and federal level there wasn’t this hesitancy to put in a system to check vaccination data,” adding that with such a system in place businesses would be able to safely stay open.

While demand for fitness businesses is still being reduced by pandemic related restrictions, businesses are no longer able to benefit from pandemic related support programs. Many commercial landlords are back to charging full or near-full rent and relief money is less readily available.

“June 15 finally felt like ‘okay now we have a chance to try to claw our way back’, but this (mask mandate) is just another delay in being able to do so, and it’s hard because the PPP money is over,” said Bair.

For Tom Williams, the owner of Burn Fitness gym, his biggest grievance with the mask mandate is not the loss in business, but the weariness of his staff and the inconsistent manner in which it applies to different industries.

Burn is fortunate to have a large outdoor roof space which can host group fitness classes, cycling classes, and a range of gym equipment. Still, there is some equipment that is only able to be located indoors, which can lead to friction between exercising gym members and staff members who must constantly remind them to keep their mask above their nose.

“We’re tired of being the police that makes sure that everybody does things the way the City or the County wants it done so that we don’t get fined,” said Williams. “We were inspected nine different times during Covid.”

This week Williams was annoyed when he was walking down the Promenade and peeked inside a local bar and restaurant that he said was packed with maskless customers. Per current health orders, restaurants and bars can operate at full indoor capacity and patrons do not need to wear a mask when eating or drinking.

“It was a free for all; there was nobody wearing a mask, they were shoulder to shoulder at the bar, the tables were all full,” said Williams. “We’re talking about a place that can’t be more than 1000 square feet; but I own a place that’s 10,000 square feet with vaulted ceilings, 30 foot open doors, and skylights and yet we have to be 24/7 in masks.”

None of the fitness business owners disagree with the need to rein in Covid-19 cases in the County, but they do feel that the current mask mandate is neither the fairest nor most effective way of doing so.

“We’re the only county in the country wearing masks again, so that’s distressing,” said Williams. “But, the reality is that people are dying and if it stops one person from dying, I guess I have to be on board with it. But we’re all exhausted.”