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Fitness groups move their classes to city parks to keep businesses, communities healthy during pandemic

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Like most gym owners at the start of COVID-19, Dave and Brittany Pomfret of Equilibrium Fitness for Women in San Luis Obispo closed up their brick-and-mortar studio in March and—by necessity—got into the business of digital workouts.

They offered their classes live on Zoom. They made on-demand videos. They rented out their equipment to members so they could continue working out at home.

For a few months, this model worked pretty well. But by June, Dave Pomfret saw "Zoom fatigue" set in. He noticed his class attendance bottoming out. Classes that used to have 80 attendees in April drew only 20 on a good day in June.

"People were just tired of being in front of their screens," Pomfret told New Times. "It really dropped off."

GRATITUDE Each Sunday, SLO Yoga Center hosts an outdoor yoga class in the park. Its Thanksgiving weekend class (pictured) drew a big turnout in Emerson Park. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHANIE STACKHOUSE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Stephanie Stackhouse
  • GRATITUDE Each Sunday, SLO Yoga Center hosts an outdoor yoga class in the park. Its Thanksgiving weekend class (pictured) drew a big turnout in Emerson Park.

Fortunately, as the pandemic wore on, local fitness instructors and their stir-crazy customers were thrown a lifeline. In June, the city of SLO launched Fitness in the Park—a part of its Open SLO initiative that used city resources to help businesses safely reopen.

For a one-time fee of $20 and some simple paperwork, health and fitness leaders—gym owners, yoga instructors, personal trainers, and the like—could move their classes into city parks.

"Normally, we'd charge an hourly rental fee or permit fee—and we waived that," SLO Parks and Recreation Director Greg Avakian told New Times. "Our goal was, if you have a business license and you did a wellness- or fitness-based activity, we'll support you. ... From day one of the COVID emergency, [SLO County Public Health Officer] Dr. Borenstein has always emphasized, 'Get outside, stay healthy.'"

Over the next six months, more than a dozen fitness groups would take the city up on the offer—bringing Zumba to Islay Park, yoga to Emerson Park, and strength training to Meadow Park.

Pomfret said Equilibrium Fitness jumped on the opportunity "right at the beginning." Five days per week, it offers body flow classes, dance fitness classes, and more out in spacious Meadow Park. Attendance was strong immediately, Pomfret said, as members reveled in the chance to get out of their homes, exercise, and socialize with their gym community.

"It's been great," Pomfret said. "It allowed us to get face-to-face with our customer base. People were really excited to be outside and around friends and some excitement that isn't their TV screen."

Putting on the classes isn't exactly a walk in the park. Social distancing is mandatory, and instructors are under watch at the city for adhering to COVID-19 protocols. Weather-related challenges have come up, like the summer wildfires and heatwaves. But overall, amid the COVID-19 roller coaster, the parks have proved to hold enormous value to the fitness community.

"For a lot of people, I think it has been the one time each week that they are actually out with other people," said Stephanie Stackhouse, owner of the SLO Yoga Center, which hosts five outdoor yoga classes each week at the historic Jack House lawn. "We've had feedback from people that it is the thing keeping them sane right now."

During a stressful and often-isolating pandemic, yoga's meditative and balancing properties are as important as ever. While the SLO Yoga Center also offers live virtual classes, it's the outdoor, in-person classes that give members a chance to connect with each other as well as with nature.

"One of the things we often talk about in yoga is this idea of getting grounded. We say, 'Plant your feet on the earth and feel the ground beneath you,'" Stackhouse said. "Being able to literally do that in the park, step off your mat for a second, and feel your feet on the earth, it made a huge difference."

The tangential benefits of having in-person classes also stick out to Lauren McAlister, owner of the local fitness studio McAlister Training. Like the others, McAlister went virtual with her classes at the start of COVID-19. But she knew something essential was missing, which was why she also decided to take her business to the park.

"Virtual workouts have been around for a long time—they're nothing new. And it's been really cool to see some of these brick-and-mortar businesses really pivot and make it happen and make exceptional content," McAlister said. "But at the same time, people don't come for just a workout. They come for an experience. They come for that sense of family and for accountability."

Outdoor classes salvaged some of those communal aspects of working out. Initially, McAlister said she kept her park program simple—using minimal to no equipment, with class attendees using just their mats and their bodies. But after a few months, her clients wanted more. Now, McAlister lugs around all the bells and whistles of equipment—making her outdoor classes "as similar as our indoor options used to be, in a safe environment."

"Our team has absolutely blown my mind in terms of, we bring out equipment, we haul it back and forth, we clean it, we make sure everyone's spaced out," she said. "It's just so much work, but the clients have responded so positively. It feels normal. It's a sense of normalcy in this crazy world of not normal."

Ultimately, instructors agree that it's been the collective desire for normalcy and social connection during the pandemic that has sustained Fitness in the Park. Given the long, grueling trajectory of the virus, SLO Parks and Recreation Director Avakian said the city decided to extend the program through at least June of this year.

"It was initiated as a two-month program," Avakian explained, "and all of a sudden, here we were at the end of August and we were like, nope we're still in this."

For McAlister's studio community, the park classes have been "an absolute game changer." She believes it's given everyone participating a deeper appreciation for their physical and mental health.

"It's been more apparent to them—the importance of the connection, of the community, of the bigger picture things that are more important than just a workout," she said. "People are realizing just how important it is to maintain a good health overall." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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