Two industry leaders share their thoughts on the omicron variant and advice on continuing to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the CDC, the omicron variant of COVID-19 now represents 23% of cases in the U.S. Due to the highly contagious nature of the strain, gym operators are bracing for the potential impact on an industry that’s already faced severe negative consequences from the pandemic.
“Prepare for another downturn in business as we get through the omicron spike,” advised Aaron Moore, the director of operations at VIDA Fitness. “Unfortunately, it’s the worst possible timing as we head into our biggest month of the year, so try to treat February and March as your January. We’re going to hold off on running our January playbook until the spike runs its course.”
Fortunately for the fitness industry, mandated shutdowns of businesses like gyms and restaurants appear to be off the table for many politicians at the state and federal level, including the Biden administration, due to their unpopularity among the general populace and impact on the economy. However, indoor mask mandates are making a return in some states and municipalities, including California, Boston and D.C.
“I believe this is likely the next in a line of variants we may see for a while,” said Scott Gillespie, the president of Saco Sport & Fitness. “Real, credible information is critical in determining operational or messaging adjustments. The sooner we know how it’s different, the sooner we can adapt and educate our staff and members. To date, we are hearing it is more contagious — bad news — than Delta, and is most rapidly spreading through the unvaccinated population — worse news. We are also hearing there are breakthrough cases of vaccinated people catching it, but their symptoms are predominantly mild — better news.”
With this information in mind, Moore believes it’s wise for clubs to require full vaccination for members and employees.
“We’re now going to require boosters as well,” said Moore. “It’s not political, it’s about keeping people safe. Vaccines and boosters are by far the best defense. If you’re not going to require vaccination, at least require masks for the unvaccinated, and put out lots of scientifically accurate messaging on the importance of getting vaccinated.”
The Saco Sport & Fitness team is not requiring proof of vaccination or masking while working out for members, but they do require staff to be vaccinated or wear a mask while on shift. Gillespie said they are maintaining their distancing and sanitation protocols as well. However, he believes the industry should be spending more time as well on helping staff and members with COVID-19 fatigue.
“This has gone on a long time,” said Gillespe. “It’s emotionally draining on our teams and our communities. Having reasonable expectations and grace for our team members who have likely been working harder than ever since the pandemic hit is becoming more and more important the longer this continues. We have an obligation to take care of our people so they will be better off, and better able to take care of our members.”
As mask mandates begin to be reinstated, case numbers begin to rise and long lines at testing sites are creating a sense of déjà vu from 2020, Gillespie believes it’s important operators remember the importance of the industry’s work and the impact on people’s lives.
“We can’t stop telling the story of how important exercising is to manage stress, be healthy and energized,” said Gillespe. “Exercising with others in the club setting with proper distancing, sanitation and air quality management also helps meet our strong social and emotional needs. We all need to move, and people need people.”