Henry Richardson, founder of DEFINE Body & Mind, says his boutique fitness studio franchise, which features barre, cycling, strength, and yoga classes, had just gotten into the groove of online classes when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that gyms in Texas could reopen beginning May 18. 

DEFINE, which has 17 locations across the world, including seven in Houston, had been shut down since the week of March 16⁠—before the state required gyms to shutter due the spread of COVID-19⁠—and had been hosting online classes for the past few months. Besides a few hiccups with their online platform and making sure people weren’t sharing Zoom links to nonmembers, it’s gone well. Richardson says they are planning on continuing hosting online classes indefinitely. 

But, when he found out they had the option to reopen for in-person classes, Richardson got together with his other franchise locations to figure out a plan. 

They sent out a survey to all of their clients, and only 28 percent of people said they were ready to come back. “But that gave us enough hope that like hey, if we open up, we can accommodate roughly 25 percent of our client base, which is exactly what the governor was saying,” Richardson says.

So, on Monday, May 18, six of DEFINE’s Houston-area locations reopened (the Woodlands location reopened this week). In the beginning, Richardson says, people were a little hesitant. “The first day was the smallest.” In the River Oaks location—which is in a new 7,800-square-foot space at 2515 Morse St—they can accommodate 20 mats at the 25 percent capacity limit. The first class had around eight people, and the second class only had five or six, he says. “But then the very next day we started to see more and more,” and by Monday, May 25, they had all 20 mats filled. 

Richardson says it’s been tough figuring out their new protocols. After all, there isn’t a tried-and-true manual for any of this yet. They decided to open up with minimal classes while continuing to focus on live streaming. In a non-pandemic world, they would hold 10 in-person classes a day. Now there’s only two. 

DEFINE has also worked to make sure that sanitation and safety are at the forefront. When clients walk into a studio, they have to immediately sanitize the soles of their shoes by rubbing their feet around on a special mat. Then, there is a new coronavirus-focused waiver clients must sign. “The only thing they have to touch at that point is a pen, and we have two piles,” Richardson says. “One is the clean pile, and the other pile—once they’ve used the pen, they put it into the used pile, and then we sanitize the pens.” 

In the class, the mats are spread out at least six feet apart. At each person’s mat, they have all the equipment already set up, including a two-, three-, and five-pound set of weights, so people can stay put in their spots. They also have a towel and a bottle of sanitizing spray for everyone, as well as wipes. The staff will clean and sanitize the equipment before and after every class.

Additionally, staff is required to wear PPE, including masks, except when they are leading a class. Richardson says the studios have received some criticism for this, but, for him, safety and their clients’ comfort and confidence is tantamount. “This isn’t about any type of political identification,” he says. “This is simply about us trying to make sure that every person in the room knows that we’re taking this seriously.”

However, Richardson says there’re still a lot of questions about how long they’ll have to operate like this. The governor is requiring gyms stay at 25 percent capacity, but “a lot of our stores’ landlords aren’t necessarily reducing rent by only making them pay 25 percent of rent,” he says. “And all of our other costs are essentially still the same.”

They’ve kept all personnel on staff across all locations during the shutdown because they’ve been able to continue their membership model with their online classes, Richardson says. To help make ends meet, DEFINE locations have rented out their equipment, like their bikes, and created specialty programming and content online for members to ensure they can sustain their memberships. Even still, Richardson says they’ve lost members because of the pandemic, as members’ own finances have become uncertain.

“So, it’s tough,” he says. “As a business owner, we are trying to make it so that it makes sense, that we’re being intelligent, that we’re being responsible, that we’re fulfilling our mission as a company, which is about helping to improve people’s health, but as the same time, trying to keep this business going.”

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