In recent years, the number of people who go to gymnasiums and modern fitness facilities in Addis Ababa and other regional cities has been growing steadily. But this changed after the declaration of a state of emergency and a prohibition of sporting activities at all levels by the government in March 2020 in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. Although the prohibition was lifted and fitness centers opened their doors with all the COVID-19 prevention measures and protocols three months ago, most of the previous gym-goers didn’t return to the fitness venues. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw explores.
Meti Bahiru, 27, had been a regular gym member until the first COVID-19 case was reported in March 2020. Following the declaration of a state of emergency by the government to curb the pandemic, sporting activities at all levels halted. “I am not doing any physical exercise these days,” says Meti. “In fact, it has been almost eight months since I became physically inactive.”
Though most regular members, like Meti, are yet to show up, gyms and fitness centers are already reopening after the parliament lifted the ban on sporting activities with all necessary precautionary measures. On the immediate press briefing given in September by Dube Jillo, Deputy Commissioner of the Ethiopian Sport Commission, serious measures would be taken on those breaching the COVID-19 protocol.
“We had to get governmental approval before the reopening on October 1 and our facilities have been frequently checked by officers from the regulatory body,” says Addis Bizuneh, Supervisor at Tilla Spa & Fitness. “We are implementing different measures beyond the protocol officers expect from us.”
Addis explains that staff work hard to keep the space safe for their customers and to make sure there is proper physical distancing and regular cleaning. “Now we are receiving customers through reservations because we do not allow more than eight people in the gym at a time. We take a 30-minute break for cleaning and disinfecting before another group of eight arrive. To keep the required distance between people, we have sealed every other exercise machine with ‘out of order’ signs. Precautions are being taken here to protect our customers,” says Addis.
However, all the measures and protocols implemented by other fitness centers in the city might not persuade the majority of previous gym members. Many still prefer to exercise in private, even three months after the reopening announcement.
Fromsa Derese, 41, is struggling to decide whether it is safe to utilize the gym at his work place. “I am diabetic and I know I need a regular workout. The same reason is keeping me away from the fitness center in fear of contracting the deadly virus,” he says. “The facility is where we share equipment and cleaning wipes. I suppose most people do not avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with their hands while sweating during exercise.”
These concerns seem to be shared by many, but only those who have visited the facilities may notice what gyms look like recently. “You will see a longer list of safety measures at the entrance of gyms and fitness centers,” says Bezalem Taye, a Physical Trainer who returned back to his work after a while off.
The rules displayed on the board at Alem Fitness Center, located around Wuha Limat, listed 13 major requirements customers should fulfill before starting a workout. Each member will have their body temperature tested upon entry which will be registered on their attendance sheet. Only 10 people are allowed in the center at a time. Customers should maintain at least two meters between themselves and other occupants.
To compensate for the reduced number of members a gym can handle at a time, membership and access fees have almost doubled at some fitness centers. Further, these centers are also compelled to make up for lost time and money. As an example, Alem Fitness Center’s three branches combined lost expected revenues in excess of ETB5 million, since covid19.
Based on a mini-assessment conducted by EBR in five places of fitness in the capital, the centers managed to retain only 35Pct of the customers they had before March. Three months after the reopening, most previous gym-goers seem uncertain if they will ever return to fitness venues. Some would rather go to public spaces in residential areas where they feel safe to exercise with friends and family.
“I may avoid gyms, but I know I cannot avoid workouts forever,” says Meti, admitting to gaining more weight. “Incredibly, I added six kilograms in six months. I do not know what will happen to my body and health after another six months. I need to find a way, though it may take me months to rescue myself.”
Like Meti, the fitness industry itself might take months, or even years, to rescue itself. The increasing demand for gymnasiums attracted many to invest in modern fitness facilities in Addis and other regional cities. Businesses and public service institutions were also building fitness venues and importing machinery.
“Obviously COVID-19 was a blow to the industry,” Addis admits. While the centers try to embrace the changes during a pandemic, the demand for fitness venues, which fueled the industry’s boom in previous years, is taking time to return. Centers with less capacity and equipment are struggling to maintain safety measures and protocols that reduce the number of people coming to the facility.
The challenges that the pandemic placed on the fitness industry will not only affect those already in the business. If COVID-19 stays for a prolonged time, it will be a barrier to new entrants wanting to invest in the industry. “I think those who already have larger venues with more space and equipment will enjoy an advantage in the business,” says Bezalem. “Fulfilling customer requirements along with government guidelines might help the fitness sector survive.”EBR
9th Year • Dec 16 2020 – Jan 15 2021 • No. 93