• Vermont's COVID-battered gyms contend they can't hold out much longer 
  • Attendance has tanked since the state reopened, with the biggest drop in seniors and those with chronic health conditions 
  • Staffers are stressed out by the constant conflict with customers over face masks and social distancing 

Vermont leads the nation in coronavirus response, but business owners there are still struggling to keep their doors open.

Fitness centers exemplify just how tough the going can be once states reopen -- even in the Green Mountain State. Despite Vermont leading the country with 23.4 fitness clubs per capita, customers just can't shake their concerns over cleanliness and the spread of infection.

Carla Grant's Supreme Fitness in Brattleboro is surviving simply because of the goodwill of her members.

“I don’t know how long we can stay in business," Grant told the International Business Times. "The good part is we have a lot of people who are still continuing to pay even though they’re not coming because they don’t want to see us fold.”

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Hammerfit Athletic Club in Essex, Vermont Alicia McCurley

Grant estimates she is bringing in about half the number of customers she did before the lockdown. She has seen a slight uptick in college students, but they can't match the big drop-off in older clients.

Michael Heiden of Brattleboro's Outer Limits Health Club feels Grant's pain.

“We would get about 150 a day, and now we’re looking at 50 -- if that,” he said. “Some local followers are still supporting the gym even if they aren’t comfortable coming in, but to be honest I won’t last another six months.”

In Essex, Hammerfit Athletics manager Alicia McCurley figures attendance is off 40% -- a serious revenue hit.

“People feel it's safer to just exercise at home or outside,” she said. “We did have a pretty hardy senior community and we've lost a lot of them.”

Even safety measures such as face masks and social distancing haven’t been enough to reassure many in high-risk groups, the owners told IBT. Nor has their nonstop cleaning of machines and locker rooms.

The key reason is because the state guidelines aren't being enforced uniformly by the gyms, Heiden said.

“Vermont’s guidelines are clear as mud. The bigger gyms in town, my competitors, aren’t enforcing them because the mandate isn’t clear,” he said.

And members arguing over face masks and social distancing is taking a heavy toll on employees, Grant and Heiden told IBT.

“It took a job that we loved to do and made us hate it,” Grant said. “Not unusual for my staff is crying. They’re crying here, they’re crying on their way home. There are days I could shut the door -- not because of a lack of business but because of added stress.”

But that's not the case for staffers at Alpenglow Fitness in Montpelier, owner Sky Barsch told IBT.

“We're really in a great position because our clients have been so awesome about complying with safety measures,” she said. “I think that’s the big reason that we've been able to stay open and stay in business.”

Still, time is running out for Barsch, too. She can't keep her business up-and-running much longer if customers don't start coming back through the door.

“It’s not sustainable,” she said. “We did get federal and state money, and some donations from clients to bridge the gap. But if I was just looking at dollars-in versus my expenses, we’d be in the red. We definitely can’t do this forever."

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Visitors stretching at the Hammerfit Athletic Club in Essex, Vermont Alicia McCurley

McCurley wholeheartedly agrees. Like Barsch, she received government aid -- the first stimulus package included the Payment Protection Program, loans that let small businesses keep their employees during the pandemic. The govenment forgave the loans for businesses that stayed open.

“It won't be sustainable long term,” McCurley said. “If we don't return to closer to normal, we're gonna have to really consider hiking rates or getting creative to make other areas of the business more profitable."

The vaccine has Barsch and McCurley hopeful their gyms can survive. McCurley had heard as much from her older customers who stopped coming in.

“I bet people will start coming back,” she said. “I had heard that feedback, that [with a vaccine] people will start to feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Many of Alpenglow’s customers are frontline workers and tell Barsch the same thing.

“I'm really excited about the vaccine. I feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Humans are very adaptable. We adapted to this really quickly and people will adapt again to being around people.”