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From 'freaking pissed' to 'big things': How a women-owned gym survived the pandemic

Participants run through a series of exercise circuits during a lunchtime class at Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia. The women-owned business opened right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and survival was never certain. But with the help of grants, loans, a GoFundMe campaign and assistance from their landlord, the owners managed to keep their doors open.
Austin Jenkins / NW News Network
Participants run through a series of exercise circuits during a lunchtime class at Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia. The women-owned business opened right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and survival was never certain. But with the help of grants, loans, a GoFundMe campaign and assistance from their landlord, the owners managed to keep their doors open.

It was almost a year ago that Athena Fitness in Olympia was facing financial doom. The women-owned business had opened just before the pandemic struck. In August of last year, new COVID restrictions threatened to put the owners out of business. So, what’s happened since?

In August of last year, Tiffany Krueger feared her dream of owning and operating a fitness center would be crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee imposed new restrictions on gyms that nearly tripled the required space between class participants. For Krueger’s small gym, Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia, that meant further reducing class sizes.

In anger and frustration, Krueger took to social media to decry the changes.

“I have to say that I am freaking pissed,” she said in a video posted to Instagram at the time. “We’re unable to pay our bills with these mandates; that is the reality.”

Krueger was especially frustrated because she felt like her business — which opened just before the pandemic struck — was being punished for the recklessness of others. She had kept her classes small, required masks and otherwise complied with health mandates.

And yet, when COVID-19 cases started rising again, Inslee targeted industry sectors that were viewed as a higher risk for disease transmission — including gyms.

That was then.

Now, nearly a year later, the state is reopening and Krueger has reason to celebrate. Athena survived the pandemic — if just barely.

“A year ago, we were really unsure that we would be here, truly, like it was really scary for a little bit,” Krueger said recently.

But she and her business partner, Joanna Sather, managed through.

They moved their fitness classes online. They raised nearly $11,000 through a GoFundMe campaign. They got about $30,000 in grants and loans. They also got a break from their landlord. Together, that helped them cover the bills. But Krueger says ultimately what got them through the pandemic was the support they received from their clients.

“They have carried us through this entire year,” Krueger said.

While Athena managed to keep operating through the pandemic, many other gyms did not. Nationally, the Global Health and Fitness Association says health club revenue dropped 58 percent and 17 percent of fitness facilities permanently closed.

In Washington, Blair McHaney of the Washington Fitness Alliance estimates roughly 150 of the state’s 800 clubs and studios closed. While he’s optimistic about the future, he predicts the bleeding is not over yet.

“I do think there’s a great path forward for the fitness industry,” said McHaney, who operates two clubs in the Wenatchee area. “[But] for fitness operators there’s going to be a lot of closures still.”

It wasn’t just the fitness industry that was hard hit. Between February and April of last year, 3.3 million U.S. businesses temporarily or permanently closed – the largest drop in business activity on record, according to a researcher at the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz.

The toll was especially steep for immigrant and minority-owned businesses. The UC Santa Cruz analysis found a 41 percent decline in business activity for African American-owned businesses, a 36 percent reduction for immigrant-owned businesses, a 32 percent drop for Latino-owned businesses and a 26 percent hit for Asian-owned businesses.

Now, though, there are signs of an economic recovery. Last month, Yelp reported that nationally restaurants have bounced back to 86 percent of their 2019 levels. Retail sales have also been rebounding. Meantime some sectors defied the recession, like home-related services and automobile sales.

In Washington, the unemployment rate has returned to close to pre-pandemic levels, although the overall labor force is smaller and the state has recorded a net loss of 129,000 jobs, according to the Employment Security Department.

But the recovery is and will continue to be uneven.

In an effort to help minority-owned businesses rebound, a pair of professors at the University of Washington (UW) launched a project called “Helping Minority-Owned Small Businesses Survive and Thrive Post-COVID-19.”

The project offers clients access to a list of COVID-19 resources, a series of trainings on negotiation and one-on-one pro bono legal consultations. Demand for the offerings has been high, says Jennifer Fan, a UW law professor who is co-leading the project.

“The need is great,” Fan said. “Typically, we have a waiting list for people who want to do these consults.”

And there have been success stories. One business owner who took their training, which is offered in several languages, saved $46,000 in back and future rent after negotiating with their landlord.

“Thanks from the bottom of my heart,” the person wrote in a testimonial about the program.

Even so, Fan worries about the future for women and minority owned businesses – especially those that don’t have access to banking and capital.

“I wish I could say that I was more optimistic about the future, but unfortunately there’s structural problems and structural inequities that have exacerbated the chance for survival that these companies have,” Fan said.

While minority-owned businesses were especially hard hit by the pandemic -- and struggled to get access to federal pandemic aid -- William Bradford, an emeritus dean of the Foster School of Business at UW, is more optimistic about their chances of recovery.

Bradford, whose areas of expertise include small business development and minority businesses, said the current focus on racial equity is spurring companies, governments and lenders to be more intentional about working with historically disadvantaged businesses.

Bradford said the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, and the resulting national racial awakening, put an “attitude into many of the large businesses that they should do what they can to support minority business growth.”

Going forward, he sees the potential for more opportunities for business-to-business, and business-to-government contracts for minority-owned businesses.

In fact, Bradford projects that in the next three or so years, some minority-owned businesses may actually rebound to a stronger financial position than before the pandemic.

“I think when we look … we will see a growth to offset the loss that we have experienced during the 2020 COVD issues,” Bradford said.

The COVID-19 recession also disproportionately affected women-owned businesses. The UC Santa Cruz study found that 25 percent of women-led businesses shuttered during a crucial two-month period in the early months of the pandemic.

“The disproportionate losses in the first 3 months to the number of active female business owners will only further increase gender inequality in business ownership and perhaps broader economic inequality,” wrote the study’s author Robert Fairlie, a professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz.

Athena Fitness and Wellness in Olympia easily could have been one of those statistics. Co-owner Tiffany Krueger said there were many times over the past 16 months when she thought they wouldn’t survive. Twice, she said, she had to dip into her retirement savings to pay her personal bills.

But now as the state reopens, classes are filling up and Krueger says “big things” are happening. For instance, she and her business partner recently received a shipment of exercise bikes that will allow them to expand their class offerings.

Krueger also said they are close to breaking even financially.

After a recent noontime workout class, one of Krueger’s longtime clients marveled that Athena’s doors are still open.

“Oftentimes, I'm very struck by the miraculous fact that we're still here and growing,” said Shelby Payne Shier as she put away equipment after the class.

She attributed Athena’s success to its particular focus on women and their holistic health.

“I think people are drawn to spaces like this even more with people who are building community … and a place of wellness and thoughtfulness,” Payne Shier said.

Still, there have been setbacks. Twice in recent months someone smashed Athena’s windows. Krueger said people have suggested perhaps they’ve been targeted because they display Black Lives Matter signs and the Pride flag in the windows.

“That’s impossible to know, but we aren’t removing them,” she wrote in an email.