South Florida gyms pump it up, bucking the national closure trend during COVID-19

Gym rats and exercise buffs are sustaining fitness centers in South Florida as the industry adds muscle during the pandemic at a time when many workout spots across the country have thrown in the towel.

For some, business is so good they say the time is right to expand, with one owner saying it’s ‘COVID-resistant.’

A year after Miami-Dade County allowed gyms to reopen in June 2020 following a few months of lockdown, new memberships have increased, owners told the Herald. Attendance remains healthy, for instance, at 9Round Fitness, Anatomy, Barry’s Bootcamp, Personal Fitness Advantage, and Sweat 440, among other area facilities.

Owners credit South Florida’s health-conscious culture, climate and approach to COVID-19 that largely tried to continue life as usual for making fitness profits feasible. Local COVID gym closure numbers aren’t available, but across the country 9,000 clubs, or 22% of gyms, have closed their doors since the pandemic began, according to a study by the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association cited in a recent Associated Press story headlined, “Will gyms go the way of arcades and movie rental stores?”

Not in Southern Florida, they won’t.

“Clients have said they’ve gained 20 to 30 pounds,” said Elizabeth Slowey, owner of 9Round Fitness at Atlantic Village in Hallandale Beach. “COVID has been an opportunity, because people realized, ‘I can’t do this by myself. I need people to help me get back into a routine.’ People were so sedentary, they were ready to come out.”

Partner and instructor Derek DeGrazio leads a full fitness class at Barry’s Miami Beach on August Friday 13, 2021. Gym owners see higher interest in gym memberships compared to prior to the pandemic.

Partner and instructor Derek DeGrazio leads a full fitness class at Barry’s Miami Beach on August Friday 13, 2021. Gym owners see higher interest in gym memberships compared to prior to the pandemic.

After opening her gym in May, Slowey’s membership quickly grew to 100 from 23 in four months. She caps the number of people at nine in the gym at a time — despite a maximum occupancy allowing 18 people — to provide distance between each client and has put in place other safety measures. The majority of her members range in age from 28 to 54, with an even split of men and women.

Some gyms opened their first South Florida location or announced they planned to do so during the pandemic, including Life Time in Coral Gables and Silofit.

Meanwhile, some fitness center owners already operating in South Florida said they plan to expand, both locally and out of state.

Founded in 2014, Anatomy has three studios, in Coconut Grove, Miami Beach and Midtown, as well as a space at the 1 Hotel South Beach. The company’s COO and partner David Geller declined to reveal how many members Anatomy has, but said its numbers are healthier than before COVID-19. Membership rates range between $161 per month to $255 per month.

Anatomy is anticipating opening a handful of new studios in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, as well as expanding to California, Hawaii and Tennessee through a partnership with the 1 Hotel brand, Geller said.

“It’s a growing market of a demographic of people that are interested in maintaining their health and wellness,” he said.

Since the pandemic, Sweat 440 CEO Cody Patrick sold 26 franchises for his gym, including some in South Florida, that are slated to open over the next couple of years. Thus far, Patrick owns Sweat 440 locations in Brickell, Coral Gables, South Beach and Chelsea in New York. His South Florida gyms have a total of 1,500 members that pay between $69 per month to $129 per month.

“Some brands have not survived the pandemic,” he said, “so there are opportunities for us to take that market share and take those existing members and help them out.”

Jaime Sturgis, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Native Realty, said he receives several calls a month from gym owners looking for more space in South Florida, including Crunch and Planet Fitness. Prior to the pandemic, interest was half that, he added.

They recognize that South Florida has a huge advantage over many other markets across the country — its climate.

If it’s snowing and a good 10 degrees outside, it’s hard to get motivated to get out to the gym. If it’s a static 80 degrees outside, it’s easier to get people through the door” of the gym, Sturgis said. “It’s also swim season year round.”

He added, “It comes down to experiential retail. It’s COVID-resistant.”

Some gyms ventured outside for classes as a safety measure. Barry’s Miami Partner James Provencher said his team offered popular outdoor workouts in Miami Beach and Wynwood.

During the first half of 2020, commercial real estate broker Beth Azor said that many people wondered what the future would hold for gyms. Some large chains filed for bankruptcy, including YouFitHealth Clubs and 24 Hour Fitness. The latter closed six South Florida locations.

But once they were allowed to restart last year, confidence in the industry was restored after seeing members return for frequent workouts, Azor said, noting how fitness centers can bring increased traffic to shopping centers and other retailers nearby.

Olivia Ormos, CEO of OO & CO Agency and a longtime Barry’s member, frequents the gym four times a week.

“I had COVID already. I may be a little biased, because I didn’t suffer,” Ormos said. “Because I was so fortunate, I am not as worried to go into Barry’s. If there would be any place that I would go, it would be Barry’s. I feel safest there.”

“People in the fitness world are less concerned about the virus because we are so healthy,” said Patrick of Sweat 440.

“The people that are of higher risk are taking extra precautions,” he said. “Some are wearing masks.”

Doug Jackson, president of Personal Fitness Advantage in Plantation, said that since reopening he’s only allowing six people maximum in his studio, including trainers, clients and administrative staff. He said he has 35 members, down from 70 members prior to COVID.

“Because of my focus to keep numbers down, some clients are no longer with us,” Jackson said. “I’m comfortable with that decision.”

Gyms have put in place COVID cleaning and other safety protocols since reopening. Some, like Barry’s, require frequent COVID testing for trainers and other staff.

While some of Sweat 440’s members paused their accounts or canceled, Patrick said that’s to be expected during the summer months.

“We’ve had people freeze their memberships,” he said. “That shows us that people are planning on coming back, because they are out of town or they are waiting to see what’s going on with the variant.”

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