SINGAPORE: This Saturday, May 8, was supposed to be an auspicious date for Mr Dittaya Mhosomboon. It would have been the first day of business at his new gym along Hong Kong Street.
He had set aside slots for clients to attend training sessions and to view the new facilities, with classes lined up from 8am to 4pm.
Instead, the 31-year-old will now remember it for different reasons, after it was announced that indoor gyms and fitness studios will have to close from May 8 to 30 as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures amid a rise in community cases.
“It was definitely unexpected … It happened to be so unlucky that it was on the first day, the launch,” said Mr Mhosomboon. “The initial first thing that I could think of was: ‘What am I going to do?’”
READ: Cap of 5 people for social gatherings, household visits to return as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures
In announcing the new measures on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said: "Based on overseas and local experience, higher-risk settings such as indoor gymnasiums and indoor fitness studios have a tendency to be hotspots for COVID-19 transmission.
"These settings and the associated activities are where there is a high density of people who are unmasked and in close proximity with one another, often for prolonged periods."
Ms Dewi Chen, the founder of Terra Luna Yoga, said she is disappointed by the restrictions, adding that authorities should have been more specific in the types of activities restricted, rather than a blanket ban on gyms and studios.
She noted that there also needs to be clearer guidelines for multi-use spaces, as some studios like her have business models based on hiring out the space for other uses.
“I feel there needed to be a bit more elaboration,” added Ms Chen, whose studio is also used for music and drama enrichment programmes. "Is it based on the venue, the business type, or the actual exercise?"
Mr Brandon Koh, who is the studio manager at F45 Upper Thomson, said he believes that the move “blindsided" the industry.
“It wasn’t like a week’s notice to prepare, we are just blindsided and it’s a four-day thing,” he said.
“It’s very difficult for businesses to organise things within four days. We have to work with our other vendors, our landlords, for example, we have to ask for rent relief for this period.”
ADAPTING TO THE CHANGE
Ms Linda Tang, the co-founder of WeBarre which has four studios in Singapore, said it has “eggs in multiple baskets” as it currently offers both in-person and virtual classes, as well as on-demand workouts that can be accessed remotely.
“We’re very lucky that we are in a position we do offer multiple options for our community. That was something that we've always wanted to do from the beginning, just to be able to show up for our community in many different ways,” she told CNA.
WeBarre plans to ramp up its virtual offerings over the next few weeks, said Ms Tang. The company has also created a “limited time” package - for 23 days - at a reduced price for customers during the affected period, she added.
While Ms Chen agreed that online classes are a workaround, she noted that they cannot fully replace Terra Luna Yoga’s business model.
“People do not want to pay enough. Their thinking is that: ‘You don’t have to pay for rent, so why do I have to pay the same price in an online space versus an in-person class.’ The value to virtual classes is still not there,” she explained.
Some gym owners noted that online lessons cannot totally replace the experience of attending class in person.
Mr Koh said there are three “value propositions” that people pay for when attending a studio or gym - the use of equipment, programming and instructors.
“With an online offering, equipment is out because there is no space in Singaporean households for people to rent or buy in general. The programming as a result drops in quality because there is no equipment use,” he said.
“The instructor experience also drops as a result of that and it being virtual versus in person. This leads to a value proposition that is a fraction of what they get in a studio or a gym, and the payment by consumers commensurates with that.”
According to MOH, organised outdoor exercise programmes and classes may continue, subject to a class size of 30 in total. Within that, group sizes must be kept to five, with a 3m distance between each group.
However, Ms Chen said this seems “contradictory” to the overall intention to reduce crowds given that this could encourage more to congregate in parks.
“It’s a recipe for disaster, simply because we have limited parks in Singapore where those kinds of classes will be allowed, and on top of that, you have got more people who as we have learnt during the circuit breaker period, they would flood the parks.”
Mr Mhosomboon said that outdoor could present a potential alternative to classes within the gym, but there needs to be further clarity on how things can be done.
“We have to wait out and see in the next few days whether there are any clearer parameters that we have to take note of,” he added.
As for his launch, he may be left with no choice but to postpone it.
“I’ve been planning for many months now, and then to have this setback. I just treat it as another setback," he said. "Since I’ve been waiting for so long, I’ll just wait for another month.”
FEELING THE PAIN ‘ACUTELY’
Given that gyms and fitness studios have been affected throughout the pandemic, those that CNA spoke to noted that the move will hurt their business.
For Ms Chen from Terra Luna Yoga, she said she signed a new lease just last month and will now feel the pain “more acutely”.
She had decided to move to a new space that would be more conducive for clients amid the pandemic, as well as to better adhere to safe distancing requirements.
“The location that we chose - the fact that it has got large windows, bigger space, was simply because we knew that COVID-19 wasn’t going to leave us and that there was already some management from the government side to manage the situation,” she said.
“But clearly, even though you can cover your bases with all of these sorts of measures, it is clearly not enough … Now I’m thinking to myself whether it was a good idea to continue the business. If I had known that this was going to happen, I would have shut down.”
Mr Koh from F45 Upper Thomson said it is important for landlords to help affected gyms and studios during this period.
READ: Possibility of circuit breaker ‘not ruled out’ as COVID-19 task force announces tighter measures
“The landlords should share in the social burden as well in stemming out the pandemic. Not just the tenants. Many landlords have multiple properties with multiple tenants still in operation. The financial impact is non-material to them but it is to us,” said Mr Koh.
He noted that operators such as himself could potentially see a drop in revenue of between 80 and 100 per cent during this period.
“Charging rent means fitness firms who pay white-collar wages may have issues meeting payroll if everything goes to rent. This fundamentally goes against the grain of society and what policymakers wanted, which is the absorption of those who lost jobs.”
Ms Tang said WeBarre had been operating at about 60 to 70 per cent of its usual capacity even before the closures were announced.
"Already we are stretched in terms of profit margins and revenue, even in Phase 3. So I think this is something that we need to also have foresight in and be conservative with," she said.
"Our main priority is that business stays afloat, and that our team stays afloat with their livelihood ... Definitely, this is something that is very top of mind, and we are trying to think of all creative solutions so we can make it through these three weeks, and not be too far down next month."