Gyms reopen in San Diego: What’s changing — and what’s staying the same — in fitness

Juan Lopez mops around gym equipment at Chuze Fitness in Chula Vista on Thursday. The gym plans to reopen Saturday.
Employee Juan Lopez mops around gym equipment at Chuze Fitness in Chula Vista on Thursday, June 11, 2020. The gym plans on opening Saturday with special conditions due to the COVID-19 virus.
(Sandy Huffaker/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gyms and fitness facilities reopened Friday to members, with a few changes to their models


Gym goers craving a bit of normalcy are getting a taste of their old lives Friday as fitness facilities reopen across San Diego County.

Although the habit may feel familiar, there are a few significant changes for those returning to the gym. Fewer amenities, more space — and absolutely no “fist bumps,” according to the guidelines set forth by the state.

The new rules didn’t deter Rob Vetere, a restaurant manager in Gaslamp, from returning to Balanced Fitness in downtown San Diego on opening day. The small, indie gym was quiet Friday morning, with only a handful of members working out. Vetere, a regular member who used to show up here about three or four times a week, was one of the first in line.

“Just like I could never work from home, I could never work out at home,” said Vetere. “Home is the space you relax. I’m more productive when I go to a different space.”

During quarantine, Vetere was resigned to neighborhood walks. He said returning to the gym was about prioritizing stress relief and fitness as he ages, and was relieved to return to his regimen right away. Going to a physical destination was a key part of the experience.

But the space is a bit different than it used to be. Rodrigo Iglesias, the owner of the gym, spent much of the quarantine remodeling the old building downtown. With freshly painted walls and a newly designed entrance, Iglesias said he was aiming to make the gym more neighborly and inviting. He sees the new rules for gyms as an opportunity to engage more with customers. Instead of letting members sneak past the front desk without a word, now he and his staff have to check their temperature and provide hand sanitizer.

Tape lines around exercise benches mark social distancing guidelines at Chuze Fitness in Chula Vista.
Tape lines around exercise benches mark social distancing guidelines at Chuze Fitness in Chula Vista on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
(Sandy Huffaker/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gym rules and guidelines sterilize once-social fitness centers

The temperature checks are part of a long list of reopening guidelines meant to reduce gym-goers’ exposure to COVID-19 through shared equipment and packed facilities. But the changes also make gyms a far less social space than they once were. Among many rules for sanitation and spacing of equipment, the guidance also suggests gyms close down or limit all “non-core” services, such as locker rooms, childcare, and spas. Handshakes and fist bumps are also off the table.

Instead, members will be greeted with a non-contact forehead thermometer and big bottles of hand sanitizer at the door.

Billy Grenham, the chief marketing officer for a small West Coast chain of gyms called Chuze Fitness, said his staffers are doing what they can to keep the gym atmosphere as friendly as it used to be. The gym is training staffers on how to engage with members without close contact they used to have.

“We’re giving air fives instead of high fives,” Grenham said, adding that those greetings would be done behind a sheet of plexiglass for front-desk associates.

Chuze is also selling masks at the front desk for members who come in without one. They shoot for a light-hearted tone: “I’m totally smiling under this,” the masks read.

Employee Nijal Collins wipes down a plastic shield at the register at Chuze Fitness in Chula Vista.
(Sandy Huffaker/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Masks while working out?

Although the state doesn’t require facial coverings, San Diego County’s mandate on masks means gym members should be covering their faces while exercising. The thought was inconceivable to Victoria Louise Rabin, a 35-year-old self-described gym addict in Pacific Beach.

“I can’t breathe when I wear those, let alone when I’m working out,” Rabin said. “Unless they created a mask that you can breathe through, I don’t see how that would work. Especially when you’re sweating and gasping for breath. It would be a tricky situation.”

Adherence to the mask rule will likely vary by location, as the size, culture and makeup of the gym will influence how it operates. On social media, several gym-goers in San Diego said they would not want to wear masks while working out, and didn’t expect their gyms to make them.

Regardless of rules, many former gym members appear to be chomping at the bit to return to their “third place,” the spot between work and home in which they can unwind.

Rabin couldn’t wait to return to 24 Hour Fitness once the chain reopens.

“I go for the gym environment and community, even if I don’t speak to anyone,” Rabin said. “It’s about having that escapism. You need to release whatever’s going on in your life. I stopped working out during quarantine, and I felt lethargic. Everything felt more gray, and I didn’t have a spring in my step anymore. I realized it was because I wasn’t training.”

Despite all the changes, Grenham said he believes members will take what they can get. Both Chuze and Balanced Fitness reported a notable increase in calls for new memberships, as well as a return of existing members.

“People are craving some sort of normalcy,” Grenham said. “The gym is a routine for everybody. They want something to do during the day that feels familiar. People are saying, ‘It feels good to be home.’”

For those not ready to return to a physical gym, Chuze is offering virtual classes online for $4.99 per month.