Ontario gyms scramble for survival amid latest shutdown

·4-min read
Ontario gyms scramble for survival amid latest shutdown

Gyms and fitness facilities in Ontario say they are scrambling to survive through the province's latest restrictions, which have hit businesses at what is typically a peak time of year for the industry.

Facing a rapid rise of Omicron cases, the Ontario government moved into a modified Step Two of its reopening plan on Wednesday, forcing all indoor sport and recreational facilities including gyms to close. The plan has also closed schools, shut down indoor dining and paused non-urgent surgeries as the province faces record-high cases of COVID-19.

It's a move that has been "devastating and disheartening" for gym owners, particularly given the timing of the announcement, says Stacy Irvine, the owner of five Totum Life Science gym locations in Toronto.

"January is one of the biggest months for the fitness industry, and by closing us now and doing it so last minute, it really jeopardizes our ability to maintain ourselves as a feasible business," Irvine said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada. She added that a lag time between closures and the introduction of new government support has exacerbated the situation and made it more challenging for companies as they grapple with further uncertainty.

"They're always playing catch-up after they make you close, so you don't actually have a clear picture of what your options are."

In response to the new restrictions, the Ontario government expanded its previously announced Business Costs Rebate Program, allowing businesses to receive a rebate payment for a portion of their property tax and energy expenses during the shutdown.

On Friday, the government announced it would be launching a new $10,000 grant program for small businesses that have been forced to close due to government restrictions. Businesses eligible for the new grant include indoor sports and recreational facilities such as gyms. The government says businesses should expect to receive the grants in February.

Julie Kwiecinski, the director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), says the group had been pushing for broad and immediate support for businesses that have been forced to close their doors this week.

"The government has promised the rebate for the middle of January, but that's cold comfort to a gym owner who needs help now," Kwiecinski said in an interview.

"If you are hanging on by a thread, every single day counts. New grants can't come soon enough."

The fitness industry has been among the hardest hit through the pandemic. Ian Smith, who owns an Orangetheory Fitness location in Toronto's Fort York neighbourhood and is a board member of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, estimates that many individual fitness studios have taken on between $150,000 and $250,000 in debt through the pandemic. For larger gyms with multiple locations, that amount is even higher. Smith says many businesses have also struggled through Ontario's previous reopening, which required operating at reduced capacity.

"Right before the announcements, we were operating with mask mandates, with a reduced capacity and with a vaccine passport," he said in an interview.

"You're left wondering what else we would have to do to be able to operate. Not only are you hit by the closure, but there's no signal that we're going to reopen because every measure that's been introduced over the last two years has been deemed not enough by this announcement. It's very confusing."

The timing of the shutdown has been especially challenging, as people seek to fulfill New Year resolutions and adopt healthier habits.

"This is a peak time where we usually see a general renewed focus with people making fitness and health a priority. We usually benefit from that from a business standpoint, and to see that completely dissolved is a huge hit," Smith said.

Irvine, who says long-standing relationships with landlords and banks have been key throughout the pandemic, hopes the government moves quickly to help businesses that are struggling.

"The most important things for businesses right now is the acknowledgement that this has been both mentally and financially devastating and simple solutions so we can get money immediately," she said.

"We need to figure out a way to get people to work... we want to work. We don't want to be sitting around our houses anymore not doing anything."

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

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