East Hampton Fitness Studio Falls Victim To COVID-19 Closures

Chris and Elisa Carney, photographed in their XFiness Studio in East Hampton on July 27th, 2020

In the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, Chris and Elisa Carney were hopeful and resolute to keep their fitness training business, Railroad Avenue Fitness, ready to emerge from the forced closures.

They bought touch-less hand sanitizer dispensers and a $2,000 contraption called an electrostatic sanitizing gun for sterilizing their gym and its equipment. They strategized spacing of clients and workouts. Then they waited.

Gym owners across the state had hoped their businesses would be included in phase four of the state’s reopening plan, which went into effect early this month. But even though case counts in the state have remained low, the day before phase four was rolled out, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced it would not include indoor fitness facilities, and no timing of a phase five has been hinted at.

“When we weren’t included in phase four, that was the writing on the wall for us,” said Mr. Carney, who announced this week that Railroad Avenue Fitness was closing permanently after 14 years in business. “It was tough. I certainly didn’t think when I put the sign on the door in March that it was the last time I would be in the gym.

“We were really fortunate to be where we were in the village anyway, thanks to a great landlord who is a friend and really looked out for us,” he added. “But even then, we were not killing it to begin with, so with all the ambiguity about when we would be able to get back to work, and then at 50 percent [capacity] — it was just too much. We had a good run.”

The couple started Railroad Avenue Fitness with a vision to create a new kind of gym, geared toward personal trainers, like them, who had been working independently, rather than as employees of a fitness facility, but would welcome having a facility with top of the line equipment and a no crowds clogging up training equipment. Rather than selling memberships, the trainers would rent space and time slots from the Carneys.

The model worked and was embraced by independent trainers and their regular clients — and has since been adopted by other fitness studios as well.

The model also meant that their gym was not like most other gyms in a way that Mr. Carney said maybe should have allowed it to reopen sooner. With just a handful of clients and trainers in the space at one time, and their preparation for fastidious distancing and cleaning, a small studio like the Carneys’ could have operated safely, he suspected.

“I don’t think big gyms should be open, to be honest,” Mr. Carney said. “To have hundreds of people in a room, huffing and puffing, that doesn’t seem like a great idea yet. But to classify a small personal training studio that has three or four trainers working with three or four clients in 2,000 square feet as being the same as a Gold’s Gym, was disappointing.”

The property does not have enough outdoor space to fully move operations outside like a smattering of other fitness facilities have done — SoulCycle in Water Mill has set up its fleet of dozens of stationary bikes under a tent on the Water Mill Shoppes lawn.

Ms. Carney has continued with her personal training clients away from the gym, taking her regime on the road with a Jeep full of weights and a pop-up tent.

Mr. Carney — who rode his bicycle 5,000 miles across the country in 2005 to raise money to help wounded veterans, a trip that mushroomed into the Soldier Ride benefit events circuit that is one of the biggest fundraisers for the Wounded Warrior Project — had started work in real estate with Compass three years ago, which will be his full-time focus now.

The equipment from the fitness studio has been sold to other trainers, some clients and an up-island gym.

As for the future that other gyms face, Mr. Carney said he is hopeful others will be able to survive the closures. Nearby fitness company Truth Training has moved most of its circuit training classes outdoors to a local a tennis club — taking advantage of an East Hampton Town executive order that allowed fitness companies to move operations to outdoor spaces on other commercial properties without the usual restrictions that would be placed on multiple businesses at one location — and the larger operations might be better able to weather the financial stress of the extended closure, he said.

“It has been tough,” Mr. Carney lamented. “We know so many friends who are going through this same thing. Every other friend owns or works in a bar and grill and is being hurt by this also. We are thankful we had very loyal clientele and we had a good run.”