Members sweat it out at the Jefferson Valley Club Fit. | Photo courtesy of Club Fit
Westchester’s fitness sector took a serious blow during the pandemic but has learned to adapt — and even improve — as COVID lingers.
Emotional displays aren’t common at gyms — the focus is usually on physical displays, like a sparring match or an impressive dead-lift. But at Downstate Crossfit last year, when the Briarcliff Manor gym first reopened after months of COVID closures, things got sentimental.
“We told everyone there that they would forever be known as our ‘comeback crew’ because had they not signed on for that September, who knows when we could have opened the doors,” recalls co-owner Megan Murray. “We are a small gym in comparison to your traditional fitness facility. CrossFit communities are tight-knit.”
Emotion has become a lot more common at Westchester gyms over the past year and half, as professionals like Murray — and her customers — struggle to balance business, safety, and health with an ongoing pandemic.
Indeed, Westchester’s health-and-fitness sector was one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic. Local gyms, spas, and other venues weren’t deemed essential, which means they had to close their doors at the height of the pandemic. And when they began to reopen, in the second half of 2020, they had to deal with serious customer apprehension — even the most dedicated gym rats worried about sharing space with others.
“In March of 2020, everything shut down,” says Vira Dinota, manager at The Westchester Gym in Elmsford, a sprawling fitness center with racquetball, basketball, group exercise classes, and children’s programming. “All gyms in Westchester were shut down in that moment.” It was a scary time for gym owners, personal trainers, massage therapists, and a range of other health-and-fitness professionals — “a fateful day,” echoes Lynne Welling, the manager of Club Fit in Jefferson Valley.
Now, nearly two years after the pandemic began, Westchester’s fitness industry is getting back on its feet. And it’s not just a return to the pre-pandemic normal. Many local gyms and fitness studios have adopted new strategies that they plan to continue long after COVID has receded.
The recovery efforts — although still very much underway — began last summer. “We opened our doors in August 2020,” explains Dinota. She and her team sent emails and Facebook updates to all members, outlining the reopening and, just as important, the new status quo: mask requirements, regular sanitization of equipment, temperature checks, and meticulous record-keeping for contact tracing. The gym also retired some elements that it deemed high-risk, like its showers and towel service. “We had very strict guidelines from the CDC, the state, and localities about what we could and couldn’t do,” Dinota explains.
When the doors opened, though, there was no stampede. “It was a slow start,” Dinota recalls, noting that she might sometimes see just 20 people in a given day. Fortunately, that didn’t last. “As people started getting more comfortable, they came in more and more.”
Over time, some of the restrictions loosened. “You could take your mask off if you were vaccinated,” Dinota says. (Even today, though, vaccinated patrons are encouraged to wear masks if it makes them comfortable.) The Westchester Gym also phased out temperature checks.
But today, some measures remain — and will probably outlast the pandemic. “We kept up with all our cleaning protocols,” Dinota explains, which entail sanitizing all equipment every two hours. “I don’t ever see that changing. Why change something that’s working?” Dinota adds that big classes are a relic of the past. “We won’t go back to the 30-plus class sizes anymore. We’re going to have more frequent, smaller classes.” Likewise, the gym’s towel service is likely gone forever, a casualty of the pandemic era.
At Club Fit in Jefferson Valley, the staff also scrambled at the pandemic’s onset. ‘“We started running outdoor group-fitness classes,” with custom tents and equipment, says Welling. The gym also made hand sanitizer in-house and introduced discounted membership rates given that some facilities were unavailable. “We were constantly pivoting.”
“The lockdown really reminded us how lucky we are to be able to get up, get out, and move our bodies every day. I think it’s something we won’t take for granted ever again.”
—Megan Murray Co-Owner Downstate Crossfit
Just like at The Westchester Gym, some of those pivots have hardened into permanent policies. Welling says the gym plans to continue its reservations system for fitness classes and the aquatics center, which was initially introduced to keep groups small. “We’re finding our membership — especially in aquatics — is really enjoying reserving their time,” Welling says. Another lasting change is cleaner air. “I see our air treatment staying with us,” Welling adds. “We have just a cleaner, safer club. I don’t see that ever going away.”
As 2021 wore on, Dinota says her gym was approaching a sense of normality. “We were really getting there,” she notes with a sigh, noting that the Delta variant has been difficult. “People are still coming, but you might see more masks in the gym.”
What about those viral videos online, of gym-goers who fight with staff about vaccination status or masks? “We are very fortunate. We have not run into people being nasty,” Dinota says. “They’re actually happy that we’re asking, that we’re taking it seriously. We’re doing it for everyone’s health, including theirs.”
Gyms weren’t the only business hit hard by COVID. Local spas and other health-and-fitness studios faced major uncertainty too.
“We were shut down from March 16  to June 23, 2020,” recalls Stephanie Hershkowitz, general manager of Tranquility Spa, in Scarsdale, which offers massages, facials, waxing, and several other services.
When Stephanie and her team could finally return to massages and facials last summer, “it was slow going,” she recalls. There were also stark changes, like closing off locker rooms and communal areas. “You pretty much went right from the car to a private room.” Additional safety measures, like extra coverage layers on massage beds, were also introduced.
As 2020 melted into 2021, though, business “did pick up,” Hershkowitz says. “People started to desperately need to relax. We’re so busy now. It’s been a crazy summer.” But there’s a new, COVID-related problem: staff shortages. “We have less staff than we’ve ever had,” Hershkowitz explains, noting that even in normal times it’s hard to find massage therapists. Amid the pandemic, this tight labor pool shrank even further, due to “fear and career change,” Hershkowitz adds.
As to how the spa industry will change long-term, Hershkowitz thinks masks are here to stay. As of August 2021, all staff at Tranquility were still wearing masks, but vaccinated clients weren’t required to. Hershkowitz also says that massage and the pandemic have a strange relationship — demand doesn’t necessarily always go down. While some customers are reluctant to visit during a spike, others’ “stress levels are so high,” Hershkowitz explains. In other words: Massage can be exactly what you need during a pandemic. “It’s almost necessary [for some people]. I could fill up two spas with such people at this point. I’ve had clients literally cry after a massage. It’s an emotional release.”
At nearby Still Mind Martial Arts & Yoga, on Central Avenue in Scarsdale, pandemic pivots are also becoming long-term changes. When COVID began, some of the gym’s classes moved outside and online. “Aikido and t’ai chi are naturally done outdoors, so we just migrated outside and added Zoom capability,” explains Steve Kanney, a chief instructor at Still Mind. “Very-cold-weather training was helpful but less popular, so Zoom picked up a bit.” While some programs did see fewer members, like yoga, “some others, like t’ai chi, actually grew a bit,” Kanney adds.
“In terms of questions about procedures, protocols, and safety, it’s a roller coaster of uncertainty.”
—Stephanie Hershkowitz, General Manager Tranquility Spa, Scarsdale
Now, those outside and online classes are becoming a core curriculum. “We intend to have a more formalized approach to outdoor classes and retain Zoom capability as a supplement to in-person classes,” Kanney says.
Some of Still Mind’s technical upgrades during the pandemic are also proving to be smart long-term investments. “We have created good ventilation via powerful exhaust fans, which we can continue to use in future summers and eliminate the need for the air conditioning,” he explains.
As the pandemic continues, fitness professionals have learned to expect new twists and surprises. “In terms of questions about procedures, protocols, and safety, it’s a roller coaster of uncertainty,” says Hershkowitz.
But one technique for navigating a difficult time is surprisingly simple: trust. “One reason we’re so busy is because we’ve been in the community 30 years. We’re trusted,” Hershkowitz explains. Club Fit’s Welling agrees: “What was really important to us was to build trust about mitigating as much risk as possible at the club.”
Another thing working in gyms’ favor is Westchesterites’ penchant to stay healthy and let off steam. “It was very helpful for people to exercise, relieve stress, and maintain a community during those times,” says Kanney. Murray of Downstate Crossfit concurs: “The lockdown really reminded us how lucky we are to be able to get up, get out, and move our bodies every day. I think it’s something we won’t take for granted ever again.”