San Francisco fitness centers fear ‘complete collapse’ amid coronavirus shutdown

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Owners of boutique gyms and fitness centers flooded the San Francisco Small Business Commission meeting Monday night and pleaded for permission to reopen.

In a series of speeches grouped under the title “Help Save Us from Complete Collapse,” members of the San Francisco Independent Fitness Studio Coalition addressed Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon with an array of emotional and data-based appeals.

“It’s somewhat confusing to me as to why I can’t be 20 feet away from someone and instructing them how to do pushups while both of us where masks,” said Evan Mather, whose facility is about 2,000 square feet and has 18-foot ceilings. “At the same time, I can get in an Uber car, go to an airport, sit in the middle seat of a plane, fly to San Diego and go shopping for expensive jeans. It’s ridiculous.

“It doesn’t seem like science is dictating these decisions.”

Aragon awkwardly addressed the Small Business Commission for 90 minutes. After asking to leave, he was obliged to stay as public comments were reduced from three to two minutes.

Sometimes ducking his head and sometimes taking notes, Aragon stayed for the next hour as the SFIFSC battered him. The coalition had the first six calls and 18 of the first 21.

Dave Karraker, co-owner of MX3 Fitness, said he has laid off 10 people and amassed a debt of more than $20,000 since March. Mystie Webster said she has a personal guarantee on the remaining two years of a 10-year lease for her studio on Van Ness, so her only options are to permanently close or to file for bankruptcy.

Lisa Thomure opened a Pilates studio in January.

“I have no option, but to close permanently, unless I want to spend the rest of my life paying off debts I acquired in opening my business,” Thomure said. “You are saying that our knowledge and understanding of this virus is evolving weekly, even daily. But your knowledge has not evolved, at all.”

The format did not allow for Dr. Aragon to respond, even though it appeared he wanted to several times on the Webex conference.

Before the public peppering, he did tell the commission: “I’m not an expert on all of the various ways that people run businesses. I just want to know ventilation, physical distancing, face-masking and core principles. At the health-officer level, we’re thinking: ‘What are some levers we can pull?’ We don’t want to get into the business of all of these individual capabilities. It puts us in a really difficult situation, because I can’t get give you a rational reason.”

Shuttered since the mid-March shelter-in-place order and having failed in their most recent bid to be allowed to reopen, the coalition of small neighborhood fitness studios is now asking to be treated almost like physical therapists. The caveat is that the fitness experts would do one-on-one training without actually touching the clients.

The coalition represents more than 60 small studios that employ more than 700 people and provide health services to more than 22,000 residents. It estimates that its businesses are losing $9 million per month.

On July 27, the coalition filed a Public Records Act request, demanding all “data and analysis on which the mayor and the health officer have based their orders to close fitness facilities in San Francisco.” At the 10-day deadline for response, San Francisco on Thursday requested an additional two weeks to pull together information.

The fitness industry believes its mental and physical health benefits should garner “essential” status. But it is widely believed that salons and massage and tattoo parlors will be the first allowed to reopen after moving off the state’s watch list.

“When you go to your doctor, he asks four questions. ‘How much are you sleeping? Are you smoking? Are you drinking? How much exercise are you getting?’” Karraker said. “He doesn’t ask how many haircuts or massages you got. He doesn’t ask: ‘Did you get any new tattoos?’”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rsimmons@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

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