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‘Blindsided, but pleasantly surprised’

Travis Holt, a trainer at the Jewish Community Center uses the gym’s equipment as group classes will be held starting Thursday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham packs plenty of information into her frequent pandemic-related livestreams – charts, graphs and Cabinet members all make regular appearances as New Mexicans tune in by the tens of thousands.

But as last week proved, you still have to read the fine print.

When the governor announced last week that her administration would be extending the public health order, it wasn’t until the official order was released in writing that it became clear a few changes had been made – including that in-person group fitness classes, a no-go for months, now would be allowed at 25% capacity.

It caught more than one local industry leader off-guard.

“We were blindsided, but pleasantly surprised,” said Shelly Prant, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque.

But, once organization leaders had verified the written order really did allow for group classes – a change the Governor’s Office has said aims to streamline regulations to make them easier for businesses to comply with – center COO Cathy Driscoll said they were ready to act.

“We’ve been prepared since we closed (early in the pandemic) to reestablish our fitness classes when it was allowed,” Driscoll said. “We’re calling back our staff and confirming who can still teach what, because … it’s been months.”

Jewish Community Center COO Cathy Driscoll, left and CEO Shelly Prant stand inside the new and expanded Zen Studio where yoga classes will be held starting Thursday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

To group or not

Proprietors of some gyms and fitness centers are ready to forge ahead with the new order in hand.

The Jewish Community Center’s gym has been open at a limited capacity for some time – and while some instructors were already back in the center Monday night, Driscoll said Thursday is the official first day of group fitness classes again. There have been adjustments, of course – a strict new cleaning regimen, the removal of some equipment, temperature checks and more.

Defined Fitness – which before the pandemic was running some 700 classes weekly at its seven New Mexico locations – is preparing to announce its revised class schedule and rollout timeline later this week, also with a strict new cleaning regimen, according to spokeswoman Maria Lamar.

“We’re really excited to be reopening the group exercise program,” she said. “It’s really the heart of what we do.”

Bill Keleher, owner of The Open Gym Albuquerque at 4200 Wyoming NE, said he plans to take a measured approach back to group classes.

Like many other facilities, The Open Gym has offered some streamed classes to members in recent months, some of which involved instructors leading the class from the gym itself over Zoom or Facebook.

“With the very small capacity, what we’ll probably do is have a few spaces for members” in the studio, Keleher said Monday.

For other facilities, the way forward isn’t so clear.

Heather Smelser, owner of Mi Vida Yoga, said she’s not sure what restarting classes will look like under current restrictions, and plans to go “really slow and cautious.”

“I’m a little confused by the order,” she said. “We’re contemplating doing park yoga, but I know the large group gatherings, to my understanding, are (limited to) no more than five right now. … I’m going to take a day or two to really sit down and think about how I’m going to move forward.”

Members of CrossFit Albuquerque exercise with masks. (Courtesy of Aaron Bubbico)

Meanwhile, Aaron Bubbico, owner of CrossFit Albuquerque, isn’t planning to bring back traditional group classes at all in the near future.

Bubbico said when fitness centers reopened at the beginning of June, he restyled his facility at 6501 Eagle Rock NE to an open gym format and started taking reservations. While he said there may be some sort of group instruction going forward, he’s not looking to get back to the classic CrossFit class format – because “if it’s not broken, we’re not going to fix it.”

“We’re kind of going to keep on doing what we’re doing because it’s working,” Bubbico said. “We still have to social distance. We still have to have masks. It kind of makes running a group CrossFit class … chaotic.”

Bubbico, who during the shutdown loaned out his gym’s equipment to members, said he’s seen about 90% to 95% retention during the crisis – which he attributes to CrossFit members’ sense of community and a lot of hard work early on in the pandemic.

Finances a struggle

Some other facilities haven’t been as fortunate.

“Honestly, I was just getting ready to close down the studio and shut down the business” before learning Friday about the change to the public health order,” said Smelser, a sole proprietor and single mother who started the studio at 2418 Juan Tabo NE nearly seven years ago after leaving a career as a corporate accountant. “… (Now) we’re going to give it a try.”

The income Smelser is taking in from the 15 or so virtual classes she’s offering each week isn’t enough to cover her fixed costs – which means she’s looking at having to adjust her prices going forward. Smelser said she knows she’s not alone.

“There’s some beautiful, beautiful small gyms here that are really about ready to have to close,” she said. “… It is concerning.”

The Jewish Community Center has had to cancel a number of its offerings this year – including its summer camp and swim team.

“We are really running a deficit,” Prant said. “Right now, you know, we’re just squeaking by with the bare minimum.”

Meanwhile, members of some facilities are either putting their memberships on hold or canceling outright.

Keleher of The Open Gym said he understands that some of his members’ lives, too, are in flux.

“This is tough times for so many people,” he said.

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