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With shower curtains, sanitization and social distancing, Los Angeles gyms reopen

Christian Armenta, left, and Jennie Reynoso work out at Peet Sapsin's Inspire South Bay Fitness in Redondo Beach.
Christian Armenta, left and Jennie Reynoso work out in “gainz pods” during a high-intensity interval class led by Peet Sapsin, who co-owns Inspire South Bay Fitness, Wednesday in Redondo Beach.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

His clients worked out in separate cubicles made of see-through shower curtains and PVC pipe.

But even behind his face shield, fitness trainer Peet Sapsin’s enthusiasm was contagious.

“Socially distancing, yeah!” Sapsin hollered, as music with a heavy bass line throbbed through the Redondo Beach gym.

A ringing boxing bell marked the end of a 30-second set of repetitive squat exercises known as half-burpees, and all five sweat-drenched trainees caught their breath at Sapsin’s Inspire South Bay Fitness studio.

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The cubicles, which Sapsin affectionately calls “gainz pods,” have allowed him to feel comfortable reopening Inspire’s doors after many clients told him they didn’t want to work out while wearing masks. The gym’s maximum class size has been reduced from 24 people to nine to allow for 10 feet of social distancing, but that was enough for Sapsin, who experienced a devastating financial loss during the three-month shutdown.

“We didn’t know if we were going to get to reopen again,” he said. “It keeps us afloat for now.”

Since Los Angeles County announced, with a two-day warning, that gyms could reopen June 12, fitness centers have been scrambling to figure out how to resume in-person business. Their solutions have been creative.

But are they safe?

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“The devil is in the details,” said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA. “Who’s going to be doing the cleaning? What about shared bathrooms — how often are those going to be cleaned? How are you going to keep people more than six feet apart from each other? Are people going to have to wear masks? They should have to wear masks.”

Rimoin said exercisers should feel comfortable with their gym’s coronavirus protocol before returning. They should wear masks, she said, even if it’s uncomfortable.

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something,” Rimoin said, pointing out that the risk of acquiring and transmitting the coronavirus is higher than ever as fitness centers reopen. She’s not going to exercise in a gym for a while, she said.

Protocol Galore

Cardio exercise machines
Cardio exercise machines sit socially distanced at the Collins & Katz Family YMCA in Los Angeles.
(Kristine Alfonso / YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles)
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The YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles opened six of its branches on Monday. The plan is to open six more every Monday until all 26 locations are up and running, with accommodations made for social distancing, Chief Operating Officer Mark Dengler said.

“It’s safe to say when you walk in, you will notice a difference,” Dengler said.

Since the shutdown, local YMCAs have conducted blood drives, offered showers for those without shelter and provided child care for essential workers. Staffs have been retrained, air filters in buildings replaced, hand sanitizers installed and social distancing practices adopted.

“We want to be able to do and offer the same programs as quickly as possible, but we just want people to be safe,” Dengler said.

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He added that 50% of the organization’s members have continued to pay dues to support its work within the community.

“So, the question is, do you think people are going to come back? Hell, yeah,” Dengler said.

The YMCA is requiring masks be worn inside its buildings, except when people are exercising. The rules seemed to be looser earlier last week at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, where former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger skipped a planned workout after learning others weren’t required to use such protection while exercising, according to CBS Los Angeles’ reporter Tina Patel. After Gov. Newsom announced the state’s new face covering order on Thursday, the gym updated its protocol to require that masks be worn inside.

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Some Angelenos won’t get to choose whether they go back to their gym. Industry titan 24 Hour Fitness filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week, citing losses from closures due to the coronavirus. About 130 of its locations, including 18 in the Greater Los Angeles area and Orange County, are permanently shuttered.

“It kind of feels like opening up a new business,” said Adrienne DiMatteo, who owns Hype Silverlake, a class-based fitness studio, with her family.

For Hype’s opening on Wednesday, DiMatteo is moving most workouts outside. Clients will be spaced eight to 12 feet apart.

“That would definitely be a better situation,” Rimoin, of UCLA, said of outside classes. “We know the virus doesn’t spread as easily outside.”

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“From everything we’ve read, the likelihood of the virus spreading with the protocols we have in place is almost theoretical,” DiMatteo said, describing the distancing and repetitive equipment cleaning that will take place at Hype.

Still, the financial effect of the shutdown has been rough. The personal guarantee on Hype’s lease made things even more difficult, the owner said.

“It was more like sitting back and waiting to see, how much are we going to lose?” DiMatteo said. “Because it really was out of our hands. We couldn’t close the business.”

The Bay Club, which reopened its seven Los Angeles clubs June 12, is taking advantage of its outdoor spaces too. That’s where most of its fitness classes and some of its cardio equipment have been moved.

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After Thursday’s state order, the club decided to require people inside to wear masks even while exercising. As of Friday, children in the club’s camps are also required to wear masks.

“You kind of have to keep your head on a swivel with all the changes that are coming out from the state and the county level,” Executive Vice President Annie Appel said.

Tape marks boundaries around the club’s weightlifting benches to ensure only one client occupies each at a time. If members want to lift — or play tennis, golf, swim or more — they’ll need to plan ahead.

“The whole club is now by reservation, and it allows us to really understand what parts of the club are being used by who and then put a cleaning schedule to that as the reservations turn over,” Appel said.

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At Inspire South Bay Fitness, the equipment is wiped down with germ killer, and the plastic shower curtains are sprayed and steamed.

Before entering, customers must be wearing a mask, pass a thermometer test and otherwise show no signs of illness. They are then allowed in and directed to a cubicle, where they may take off their mask.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” said Trinh Sapsin, who co-owns the gym with her husband and takes credit for dreaming up the “gainz pods.”

As the high-intensity workout session ended Wednesday evening, Diane Gloor, a Redondo Beach resident who has been a member of the gym since it opened almost three years ago, emerged from her cubicle, sweaty and smiling through her mask.

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“It’s like community. We can’t get close to each other, but we talk and see each other and catch up,” Gloor said. “You definitely work up a sweat in that one little area.”

Gloor said she plans to come to classes four times a week.


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