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Spokane-area gym owners face grim reality of pandemic shutdown

Owners Tracie Zanol and Ken Zanol stand Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in an empty gym at their Anytime Fitness location at 1804 West Francis Ave. The Zanols and their business are struggling after Gov. Jay Inslee shut down gyms in November.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Owners Tracie Zanol and Ken Zanol stand Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in an empty gym at their Anytime Fitness location at 1804 West Francis Ave. The Zanols and their business are struggling after Gov. Jay Inslee shut down gyms in November. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Thomas Clouse The Spokesman-Review

When word came down a month ago that Gov. Jay Inslee was again about to shut down gyms in the state, members in tears began walking into the office of Tracie Zanol, co-owner of the Anytime Fitness on West Francis Avenue.

“It was so sad. It makes me emotional just thinking about it,” Zanol said. “So many of them are older folks. They were staying home and getting depressed. They come here to see their friends and to work out. This was their outlet.”

Most gym owners in the Spokane area are facing the same reality: The second round of coronavirus shutdowns by Inslee on Nov. 15 have left them in dire financial situations with no income to pay for rent, employees and other expenses.

The most recent shutdown has been scheduled to last at least until Jan. 4, which coincides with the time of year when gym memberships swell as colder temperatures push activity indoors and residents pursue New Year’s resolutions to workout more.

“I do feel bad for restaurants and everything else,” Zanol said. “But there is truly nothing we can do. If we have to stay closed during January, you are going to lose a lot of gyms because people just won’t be able to hang in there.”

Jeff Carlson, owner of four area MUV Fitness locations, doubled down after the first shutdown in May and purchased equipment and hired more employees to walk around the gyms with machines designed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He also used the first shutdown as an opportunity to upgrade locker rooms. All told, Carlson said he spent about $50,000 on electrostatic-disinfectant-fogging machines and about $500,000 on improvements to the facilities, including upgrading air-filtration systems.

While MUV was able to open in July, the second shutdown in November made all those changes moot.

“We’ve gone out of our way to provide a safe environment to exercise in. It’s tough to get a return on your investment when your doors are closed,” Carlson said. “If these shutdowns keep happening, even the most stable business is going to be pushed to the brink.”

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor understands the hardships that many gyms are facing as a result of the shutdowns. “But,” she said, “they are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and reduce infections, hospitalizations and deaths.”

Carlson said he’s had to furlough most of his 150 employees, and he rents each of his locations from different owners, which represents a completely different set of challenges.

“We have been having dialogue with our landlords. They have a vested interest in making sure that we come out of this whole,” Carlson said.

That goodwill has its limits. “At the end of the day, business is business,” he said.

Wellness alternative

While most gyms struggle with outright closures, others have gone a different route.

The Fitness Center at North Park, at 8121 N. Division St., has converted to the Wellness Center at North Park after the owners hired a chiropractor and physical and massage therapists to work inside the gym that otherwise functions as it did before the shutdowns.

The changes have allowed it to remain open, owner Jordan Tampien said.

Tampien and his brother, Joel, own 4 Degrees Real Estate and purchased the gym in October 2019. At first, they had to convince the existing members that they weren’t going to tear down the 90,000-square-foot gym and build apartments, Jordan Tampien said.

“And then COVID hit,” he said. The initial shutdown “gave us three or four months to weigh the options.” They decided to change it to “a wellness center where we use fitness as a tool combined with other holistic and alternative medicines.”

He acknowledged that the timing and name change could make it seem that the transformation was done only allow it to remain open while other gyms had to close.

The pandemic “forced our hand to go this way,” Tampien said. “We will always be the Wellness Center at North Park. It’s not like we are going to change back as soon as the restrictions lift.”

Lee, Inslee’s spokeswoman, said that rules govern activities. A business that changes its name, but not those activities, would still be out of compliance.

“We know there were some gyms in the Spokane area that have tried to remain open by adding a wellness component or classes,” Lee said. “This does not change the fact that they are defying the governor’s orders.”

Tampien said the brothers invested $50,000 to $100,000 hiring therapists and creating space for them, along with other changes to make sure gym members complied with state-mandated social distancing guidelines.

“We were already talking about (the changes). We didn’t want to go head-to-head with the MUVs … or Planet Fitness,” he said. “We are not in the game to fight the system. The pandemic exposed more of a need for this form of help.”

Zanol, who co-owns the Anytime Fitness with her husband, Ken, is aware of the Tampiens’ conversion to a wellness center but said she did not consider going a similar route.

“We will continue to try to work within the state’s guidelines,” she said. “You have to consider the franchise guidelines because being open against what the state is saying is in violation of your franchise agreement. So, when people say, ‘Stand up and do it,’ it’s not the same.”

Carlson, the owner of MUV, said he understands the need for restrictions, but he challenged state officials to show any data indicating that gyms have contributed to coronavirus outbreaks.

“I know the governor is in an impossible situation,” he said. “But we believe we should be part of the solution and not looked at as part of the problem.”

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