From ‘fear of nervousness’ to ‘big things’: How a female-owned gym survived the pandemic

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In August of last year, Tiffany Krueger feared her dream of owning and operating a fitness center would be shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee imposed new gym restrictions that nearly tripled the space required between class participants. For Krueger’s small gym, Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia, this meant further reducing class sizes.

In anger and frustration, Krueger took to social media to speak out against the changes.

“I have to say I’m pissed off,” she said in a video posted to Instagram at the time. “We are unable to pay our bills with these money orders; it is reality.

Krueger was especially frustrated because she felt her business – which opened just before the pandemic hit – was being punished for the recklessness of others. She had kept her classes small, demanded masks, and otherwise complied with health mandates.

And yet, when COVID-19 cases started to rise again, Inslee targeted industrial sectors considered to be at higher risk for disease transmission, including gyms.

It was then.

Now, almost a year later, the state is reopening and Krueger has reason to be celebratory. Athena survived the pandemic – barely.

“A year ago we really weren’t sure we were here, really, like it was really scary for a little while,” Krueger said recently.

But she and her business partner, Joanna Sather, managed to pull through.

They have moved their fitness classes online. They raised almost $ 11,000 through a GoFundMe campaign. They got about $ 30,000 in grants and loans. They also got a break from their owner. Together, it helped them cover the bills. But Krueger says that ultimately what got them through the pandemic was the support they received from their customers.

“They’ve led us through this whole year,” Krueger said.

While Athena has managed to keep functioning during the pandemic, many other gyms have not. Nationally, the Global Health and Fitness Association says fitness club revenues have fallen 58% and 17% of fitness facilities have closed for good.

In Washington, Blair McHaney of the Washington Fitness Alliance estimates that about 150 of the state’s 800 clubs and studios are closed. Although he is optimistic about the future, he predicts that the bleeding is not over yet.

“I think there is a great way forward for the fitness industry,” said McHaney, who operates two clubs in the Wenatchee area. “[But] for fitness operators there will still be a lot of closures. “

It’s not just the fitness industry that has been hit hard. Between February and April last year, 3.3 million U.S. businesses closed temporarily or permanently – the biggest drop in business activity on record, according to a researcher at the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz.

The toll was particularly high for businesses owned by immigrants and minorities. UC Santa Cruz’s analysis found a 41% drop in business activity for African-American-owned businesses, a 36% reduction for immigrant-owned businesses, a 32% drop for Latino-owned businesses and 26% success for Asian businesses.

Now, however, there are signs of an economic recovery. Last month, Yelp reported that restaurants nationwide have rebounded to 86% of their 2019 levels. Retail sales have also rebounded. Meanwhile, some sectors have defied the recession, such as home-related services and auto sales.

In Washington, the unemployment rate has returned to near pre-pandemic levels, although the overall labor force is smaller and the state has seen a net loss of 129,000 jobs, according to the Department of Security. employment.

But the recovery is and will remain uneven.

In an effort to help minority-owned businesses bounce back, two University of Washington (UW) professors have launched a project titled “Helping Minority-Owned Small Businesses Survive and Thrive After COVID-19 “.

The project provides clients with access to a list of COVID-19 resources, a series of negotiation trainings and one-on-one pro bono legal consultations. Demand for the offers has been high, says Jennifer Fan, a UW law professor who co-leads the project.

“The need is great,” Fan said. “Usually we have a waiting list for people who want to do these consultations. “

And there have been successes. A business owner who took his training, which is offered in multiple languages, saved $ 46,000 in past and future rents after negotiating with his owner.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” the person wrote in a testimonial about the program.

Despite this, Fan is worried about the future of women and minority-owned businesses, especially those without access to banking and capital.

“I wish I could say I was more optimistic about the future, but unfortunately there are structural issues and structural inequalities that have exacerbated the chances of survival for these companies,” Fan said.

While minority-owned businesses have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic – and have struggled to access federal assistance in the event of a pandemic – William Bradford, Dean Emeritus of UW’s Foster School of Business, is more optimistic about their chances of recovery.

Bradford, whose areas of expertise include small business development and minority businesses, said the current focus on racial equity is prompting businesses, governments and lenders to be more intentional in their collaboration with historically disadvantaged businesses.

Bradford said the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, and the resulting national racial awakening, has put “an attitude in many big companies that they should do what they can to support growth. minority companies “.

In the future, he sees the potential for more opportunities for business-to-business and business-to-government contracts for minority-owned businesses.

In fact, Bradford predicts that over the next three years or so, some minority-owned businesses may actually return to a stronger financial position than before the pandemic.

“I think when we look… we’ll see growth to make up for the loss we suffered during the COVD 2020 issues,” Bradford said.

The COVID-19-related recession has also disproportionately affected women-owned businesses. The UC Santa Cruz study found that 25% of businesses run by women shut down during a crucial two-month period in the first months of the pandemic.

“The disproportionate losses in the first 3 months of the number of active female business owners will only further increase gender inequalities in business ownership and possibly broader economic inequalities,” the writer wrote. study author Robert Fairlie, professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz.

Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia could easily have been one of those statistics. Co-owner Tiffany Krueger said there had been plenty of times in the past 16 months that she thought they wouldn’t survive. On two occasions, she said, she had to dip into her retirement savings to pay her personal bills.

But now, as the state reopens, the classes are filling up and Krueger says “great things” are happening. For example, she and her business partner recently received a delivery of exercise bikes that will allow them to expand their course offering.

Krueger also said they are on the verge of breaking even financially.

After a recent midday workout class, one of Krueger’s longtime clients marveled that Athena’s doors were still open.

“A lot of times I’m very struck by the miraculous fact that we’re still here and growing,” Shelby Payne Shier said as she put away gear after class.

She attributed Athena’s success to her special interest in women and their holistic health.

“I think people are even more drawn to spaces like this with people who build a community… and a place of well-being and thoughtfulness,” said Payne Shier.

Yet there have been setbacks. Twice in the past few months, someone has smashed Athena’s windows. Krueger said people had suggested they may have been targeted because they displayed Black Lives Matter signs and the Pride flag in the windows.

“It’s impossible to know, but we are not removing them,” she wrote in an email. [Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network]



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