Verona’s fitness businesses are used to building their clients’ strength and agility. To stay in business during the COVID-19 pandemic they’ve had to work hard on their own.
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered gyms to close their indoor operations on March 16, in the opening days of the pandemic, and they didn’t get to reopen until September 1, with strict guidelines on cleaning, social distancing, masking and indoor capacity limited to 25%.
“We not only ensure that all members are healthy and following rules, but machines must be rotated so that every other machine is in operation to keep everyone six feet apart,” says Sha Hosen, manager of Crunch Fitness, the national franchise that took over the space once occupied by Platinum Fitness in the Pilgrim Plaza shopping center. “Our 25% capacity maximizes 125 people in the gym, and at most, we’ve had 60 people.” At Crunch Fitness, like other Verona gyms, everyone must mask up. Hosen says some people still resist doing that and he has had to ask three members to leave.
“My mask slipped below my nose and I was immediately scolded,” says Dr. Joseph Mason, a Verona resident and Crunch Fitness member. “This shows they are paying attention to keep us all safe.”
Gym owners have had to flex new business muscles in the pandemic. During the shutdown, Francis Gennarelli, owner of Mud Sweat Tears (MST), transformed the parking lot of his gym with a tent so that he could host socially distant workouts. He lent equipment to his members during the shutdown and encourages members to sanitize.
And they appreciate it. “Borrowing equipment and jumping into Zoom classes made me more accountable than ever,” says Rachel Josephson, a MST member and Verona resident. “It felt like MST never closed, and I easily adapted to virtual connections and workouts in the tent.”
Many gyms in town developed virtual workouts. “Right away, I started virtual sessions,” says Dynamic Speed and Fitness’ owner Phil Dyer, who had never done such workouts before the pandemic. His sessions were geared to members with their own equipment. “Rather than focusing on bringing potential members on board, I spent time creating virtual workout opportunities to ramp up current acquisitions,” he says.
For others, social media engagement became critical. THE LAB at Living Fit, a health and wellness facility owned by Brian and Danielle Kermizian, opened in March at the north end of Grove Avenue. Their grand opening turned into an unexpected, and almost immediate, closure, but this didn’t deter the Kermizian’s goals. Their business focuses on fitness and healthy living, with nutritional consultations, and food and drink recipes. While closed, the husband and wife duo turned to social media to attract members and maintain business remotely. “Launching at the start of a pandemic is risky, however, the nature of our business is akin to the new norm,” says Danielle Kermizian. [UPDATE: The Kermizian’s business has re-branded as The Compound.]
With COVID-19 cases rising in Essex County, the gyms are taking different approaches to the future. Dynamic Speed’s Dyer had hired a trainer just before closing in mid-March. Since reopening, he sees the risks of hiring anyone else as outweighing any rewards. On the other hand, Stephanie Gencarelli, manager of Hardbodyz Fitness, has hired new staff to assist in executing social distancing protocols, temperature checks, organizing equipment sanitation schedules, and cataloging COVID-19 waivers.
Gencarelli understands risks of bringing in new people–and germs–into Hardbodyz, but believes people appreciate seeing safety measures enacted. “Reopening in September with new procedures was overwhelming, but I sought it as a new opportunity,” she says. “We’re showing our community how seriously we take health and safety. It also helps us expand as a small business.”
Verona’s gym owners say the only thing they can be certain about in the future is uncertainty. “We have been fortunate enough to pivot forward each time something is thrown our way so we continue, but should changes arise, we’ll head back to what worked before,” MST’s Gennarelli says. “Flexibility is of utmost importance.”
[UPDATE: After this story published, the Kermizians rebranded their business as The Compound.]