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North Bay fitness centers to miss out on post-holiday membership rush as pandemic rages on

In a normal year, North Bay gyms would be gearing up for a rush of new members hoping to get back in shape after the holiday season.

But with the coronavirus pandemic intensifying and an extension of stay-at-home orders imminent, local fitness centers are instead scrambling to stay afloat while only allowed to operate outdoors in the winter elements.

“We will miss our peak season,” said Francesca Schuler, a Sonoma County resident and chief executive of In-Shape Health Clubs. “It’s like ski slopes being closed during the winter. January is everyone’s biggest month, and we’re closed.”

Schuler said only 18 of the company’s 64 gyms ― including certain North Bay locations in Napa, Vallejo, Vacaville and Fairfield ― are open for outdoor workouts. That’s devastated the company’s membership and revenue, forcing it to file for bankruptcy protection this month at time when it would traditionally aim to expand its business.

“We’re seeing an increase in interest, but the heartbreaking part is the only place to work out right now is outside,” Schuler said.

Schuler is also a co-founder of the California Fitness Alliance, which has started representing about 300 California gyms amid the pandemic.

In September, the alliance sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials, alleging fitness centers are being unfairly targeted by public health regulations and demanding to be allowed to operate indoors under the state’s pandemic reopening plan. Schuler said the suit is ongoing.

In arguing for eased restrictions, many in the fitness industry, including Schuler, have pointed to various studies and surveys showing low rates of virus transmission at gyms. But some public health experts have been skeptical of the methodology behind those reports.

In Sonoma County, health officials on Dec. 12 preemptively adopted the state’s regional stay-at-home order, which is tied to ICU bed availability. That’s forced restaurants, hair salons and other businesses to cease outdoor and indoor operations. But fitness centers are allowed to continue outdoor workouts during the shutdown.

Still, the stay-at-home order, which Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday is likely to be extended past the initial Jan. 9 expiration date, could convince many residents to avoid group workouts altogether.

And even once the stay-home order is eventually lifted, it’s unclear when local gyms would be allowed to begin reopening indoors at a reduced capacity. For that to happen, the county must first move out of the state’s most restrictive reopening tier by significantly tamping down new virus cases.

After being forced to move fitness classes outside, Brittany Alejos, co-owner of EnviroFit Gym in Santa Rosa, was still able to retain a majority of her members at the small boot camp-style studio. Though Alejos has had people ask about joining the gym ahead of the new year, she’s opted not to accept new members while restrictions remain in place.

“It just doesn’t seem appropriate given the circumstances,” she said. “Keeping the experience the same, that becomes very challenging when you move outside and it’s 32 degrees and wet.”

To make it through the winter months ahead, many gyms are counting on the $284 billion in forgivable small business loans set to be available as part of the most recent federal assistance package.

Paula Hardin, a manager at the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, said the gym received an initial Paycheck Protection Program loan earlier this year as part of the CARES Act. That money was required to be spent during the spring, which helped cover employee wages, but meant the gym ended up using most of the assistance before it was allowed to open its outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts.

This time around, lawmakers have allowed more flexibility in how businesses can spend the aid. Hardin is optimistic a second loan will go a long way in sustaining the gym until restrictions are finally lifted.

“We’re very hopeful for the next round, that it will really help the business,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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