I’m eyeing the fancy new treadmill at Fit Ritual fitness studio, 543 E. Sixth St. between Avenue A and Avenue B, with a mixture of awe and dread.
Before I can even investigate further, owner and personal trainer Helena Radulovic initiates COVID-safe protocols and checks my temperature and offers hand sanitizer. She then shows me all the bells and whistles on the machine, complete with fans, music, video and a precarious 15-percent incline.
Clutching my heavy camera, I remind myself that I am here to interview, observe and document, not sweat it out on the equipment. In that light, I am relieved when Helena’s client, health-care marketing exec Ana Zivanovic arrives for her training session. Helena agrees to answer my questions after the hourlong session is over and Ana consents to being photographed as Helena puts her through the paces...
On March 16, I was working up a sweat with my clients one last time at the fitness studio. COVID-19 lockdown orders were about to take effect on March 20 when Gov. Cuomo issued the executive order directing all nonessential businesses to close, and Fit Ritual— along with all other local gyms — would have to close its doors too.
I never expected it to be for good and that night I made a decision to fight for its survival. Every piece of me went into that place. It was my dream come true. Fast-forward to a few months back, and I continued to actually pay the full rent through June, and with donations [for virtual classes] my clients were being very generous. I decided not to pay myself to keep things going.
When I finally approached the landlord and was like, “Hey, I’ve been paying full rent this whole time, I’m really kind of out of money, can you help me out a little bit?” I got the answer, “Yes!” By July 20, all regions of New York, including New York City, had reached the Phase IV of the state’s reopening. But once they started announcing the phases and gyms weren’t ever mentioned, my heart sank. It’s as if the boutique fitness industry was completely overlooked in all of this. I’m choosing to believe this was all done in our best interest, because New York City and New York State did such a great job at mitigating the virus. But an entire sector of the industry to be completely ignored — it’s a huge industry in New York City and in every major city.
So finally, on Monday, Aug. 24, interim guidance for gyms and fitness centers during the COVID-19 public health emergency was announced. However, the mayor of New York City decided to postpone the effective date until a later date, Sept. 2 — our official reopening day! And we intend to keep on going!
We strictly follow CDC and local guidelines. Temperature checks, screening for COVID-19 symptoms prior to session, social distancing, and masks are required. We always offer a spare one. There are multiple hand-sanitizing stations at the studio.
In addition, we keep track of all appointments and contact details through Square, for contact tracing. Appointments are spread out with 30 minutes in between to allow us enough time for thorough sanitizing of all equipment and high-touch areas.
We also keep the door open whenever possible to allow for circulation of fresh air. All our clients are encouraged to get tested on a regular basis and to cancel the session in case of any symptoms.
How can people stay physically fit during a global pandemic? What does COVID fitness look like?
We are not offering massage services and in-home training at the moment due to COVID. When it comes to nutrition counseling, it is offered as part of the personal training package. Zoom functions incredibly well; however, I must mention that since we reopened, clients prefer to come to the studio and train in-person. Weather permitting, outdoor training also gained in popularity.
We are in contact with our clients via online platforms. We conducted a study recently and discovered that some people continued training hard despite the COVID setbacks. They consider fitness a mental challenge and we call them “Warriors.” Another group includes clients who either got sick or had other financial and emotional challenges during the pandemic. We pay special attention to this group, communicate more often, motivate them and encourage them with more frequent training sessions and offer a discounted plan.
Exercise is more important now than ever and we try to help out as much as we can.
Are there any particular challenges to living and working in the East Village?
I think that my answer to this question is of an essence to my small business as well as any other small business in this beautiful, inspiring neighborhood.
Being an EV resident since 2007, I thought I knew this neighborhood’s heartbeat but I definitely got the real taste during pandemic. I volunteered at a Sixth Street Community Center soup kitchen for almost four months.
As a volunteer, you learn to embrace people as they are and understand where they are coming from. Being a volunteer means that you are offering something — something that is not required nor an obligation. This connects you to other human beings as you are working toward a common goal. I also have to say that my clients and I remained very close during the time of pandemic.
As soon as they heard about the project I got involved with, they all stepped up to help, either financially or by offering to volunteer. That brought us even closer. It is very simple: if you want to conquer EV, you gotta be a tough worker with honest approach and a big big heart for your community.
With gyms capped at 33-percent capacity and no group fitness classes allowed, many gyms and fitness studios (dance/barre, Pilates, yoga) have closed permanently or are about to fold. How do you see the future of boutique fitness studios and gyms?
COVID-19 has changed how people exercise, but that doesn’t mean gyms are going away. To reassure uncertain people and ensure continued membership, fitness clubs at all points need to have firm plans for what a reopened gym will look like in terms of social distancing and continue to reinforce those measures as they reopen, which means decreased capacity and increased sanitation measures, among other things.
Members will need to feel assured that all measures available are being taken to keep them safe. On the other side, studios/gyms have experienced a demand shock for online fitness that might not have happened in a non-COVID world.
Gyms and fitness studios that have a lot of group fitness offerings have tried to give their clients access to some of that knowledge by doing things like live-streaming workouts, posting videos for on-demand consumption, providing motivational coaching online, and even in some cases renting out equipment, as we did during pandemic.
Online options should be an important back-up plan, and consumers will also look for flexible membership terms. I personally think that a lot of people are likely to return to their gym simply because gyms still offer a lot of things that people are struggling to achieve at home. One of the gym’s big appeals — besides easy access to equipment and workout space is access to the expert knowledge of trainers and the community knowledge, and support of other people working out.
The bottom line is that, like everything else, the fitness industry has been changed by the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean people are going to stop working out together. Everybody, right now, is just craving that sense of community, and sports really does bring that.
What’s next for Fit Ritual?
The pandemic has thrown many of us into a panicked frenzy. While specifics can be tough to establish, simply planning ahead and thinking about the future does add a sense of much-needed normalcy and optimism to our lives.
Also, reaching out to other personal trainers, nutrition coaches, as well as studio and gym owners has just been so lovely, and I’ve made connections with all of these other healthy lifestyle activists that I never had. The main project I would like to focus on will be kids’ fitness program, I think the studio can provide a safe environment for kids to start their fitness journey. Kids who enjoy sports and exercise tend to stay active throughout their lives.
And staying fit can improve how kids do at school, build self-esteem, prevent obesity, and decrease the risk of serious illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease later in life.