Area gyms are bracing for opening at a 30% capacity this Friday, following Gov. Roy Cooper's announcement of the state's phase 2.5 of the economic reopening plan.
The area's three Planet Fitness locations in mid-August, however, decided to open, following a number of Wilmington gyms already open
under a ruling that allowed gyms to be open for clients with medical needs.
"This was very different in this scenario. This probably is the first situation where gyms are now allowed to open under this other attorney general's ruling for medical reasons. So, North Carolina was really unique in that standpoint," Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau said in a Business Journal interview Wednesday. "We held out for quite a while ... though the franchisees, some had decided to go ahead and open under that ruling for medical reasons. But thankfully, the governor announced we could open. So that was great news to hear."
Gyms were forced to close in March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many fitness center owners were shocked to learn in May that, along with bowling alleys and bars, they would not be allowed to open in the state's second phase.
On Tuesday, however, Cooper announced that gyms and indoor exercise facilities -- such as yoga studios, martial arts and rock climbing -- as well as skating rinks, bowling alleys, indoor basketball and volleyball, could open at 30% capacity.
The announcement came with a number of other new measures, which also allowed places like museums and aquariums to open at 50% capacity
. Mask requirements, however, remain in effect.
Planet Fitness gyms that opened already have operated at a 50% capacity. Now they will have to step back that capacity, per the governor's orders, which take effect Friday, Rondeau said.
"Which our facilities are fairly large ... so even at 30%, having upwards of 100 people at once, is still perfectly fine for us to operate under and still be safe with social distancing and cleanliness standards. So it's a great start for us and I'm happy even at 30%. We can make that work for now," he said.
Returning members can expect more signs around member etiquette, more sanitation measures, social distancing, self-check-in and spacing at every other cardio operating machine, he said.
And to help members, the Planet Fitness app just over a month ago started to include a real-time "crowd meter" for members to gauge the number of people inside a single gym, to best judge gym availability and schedule.
Both the app and the new feature are being used even more by members across the country, he said. In addition, Rondeau said he looks forward to having even more North Carolina returning members working out again.
"What we're seeing in other states, which has really been the same, whether it's a southern state or northern state, a western or eastern state, the demand for joining is very high. It's on par with last year, believe it or not, people are eager to come back in and get started exercising," Rondeau said.
The YMCA of Southeastern North Carolina began allowing access to indoor wellness facilities on Aug. 19, said Sarah Gibbs, the YMCA's director of financial development and marketing, in an email.
The YMCA opened to serve members as directed by a medical or health care provider, requiring members to show a written prescription at the first visit. The medical provider’s name and contact information were recorded on the member’s account, she said.
"We followed all requirements and guidelines provided by our state and the DHHS, so that we were in accordance with the Governor’s executive order," she said. "Additionally, we have been providing outdoor group exercise and strength equipment for all Y members to make use of in our parking lots following all regulations and guidelines."
With the new directive by the governor, the local YMCA will be welcoming more members going forward at its indoor fitness centers, with or without a medical prescription, she said.
"We are grateful that many of our members have chosen to stay with us despite our indoor fitness facilities being closed. Forty-six percent of our members have chosen to keep their membership active in support of the Y’s good work in the community (providing child care for essential workers, delivering school meals to children in NHC, hosting blood drives, etc.).
"While some of our members have taken advantage of our pools, virtual exercise, and outdoor exercise opportunities over the past few months, we are looking forward to welcoming members back inside our indoor fitness facilities soon," Gibbs said.
O2 Fitness also opened its four Wilmington-area gyms in a limited capacity on Aug. 28, said Doug Warf, president of MDO Holdings, which owns O2 Fitness and a number of other companies.
On Friday, O2 Fitness will reopen its Kid Clubs and next wee will extend its operational hours for members. Members should expect an afternoon shutdown between 1 or 2 p.m. for a full sanitization fogging of its clubs, he said in an email.
When gyms reopened in August, they started operating at 20% capacity, he said, adding that O2 Fitness "will likely keep it that way for at least a few weeks."
At 20%, for example, that's still more than 80 people at it's Hanover Center location, he said.
"However, we know that our business model allows for this while most smaller spaces cannot come close to break-even revenue at 30% capacity," Warf said. "We stand with those that are pushing for a higher percentage as we have yet to see any data showing that 50% capacity is not achievable in a safe manner."
Warf, who is also a member the group Fitness Operators for a Responsible Reopening (FORR), said that the group will continue to work to provide information and data from other states to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, along with other state officials to highlight that fitness facility can "operate at a higher capacity level without any issues," he said.
"We are happy to be back open but we are still frustrated that we will be the last state to reopen indoor fitness," Warf said. "The damage done to our industry by shutting us down for nearly six months without any additional economic relief - and without any science or data to support the need to shut us down - will be felt for years to come."