Harlem loses fitness stores in pandemic, fueling health gap fears

HARLEM, NY – Among the many casualties of the pandemic in Harlem, one has flown under the radar: locally-owned fitness and wellness businesses, nearly half of which have closed in the neighborhood since last year , according to neighborhood leaders.

At least nine gyms, fitness and yoga studios and other wellness-focused businesses in Harlem have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to Carey King, director of the Uptown Grand Central neighborhood nonprofit. , who listed with the owners of a few remaining businesses.

“It’s really tough for fitness studios right now because we’re literally about to close all year,” said Tammeca Rochester, founder and owner of Harlem cycle. “There is no contingency plan that you have a full year of closure.”

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Some fear the losses will worsen already severe public health disparities in central and east Harlem, both of which have above-average rates rates obesity, diabetes and hypertension, according to city data.

Tammeca Rochester is the founder of Harlem Cycle, a community-driven studio that has managed to survive the pandemic. (Courtesy of Tammeca Rochester)

All of these conditions can worsen COVID-19 cases, which helps explain why Harlem’s death rates have been among the highest in Manhattan, Rochester noted.

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“Our neighborhood has been hit the hardest when it comes to COVID cases because one, we have the most essential workers, two, we’ve been plagued by preventable diseases from generation to generation,” he said. she stated.

“The government does not talk about fitness”

Companies that have closed locations in Harlem this year include: Sword Class, ISH Yoga, Metropolis Fitness, Revolutionary Fitness, Superior Fitness, Balanced Pilates, Bikram Yoga Harlem, Shaktibarre and Bread and Yoga (which still has a studio in Inwood).

Many of them had opened in the past five years — part of a wellness boom in Harlem, which had far fewer such businesses a decade ago.

Vivian Williams-Kurutz was one such pioneer, having given her first yoga class in Harlem in 2003.

“More than 95% of people who came through our doors were practicing yoga for the very first time,” said Williams-Kurutz, who later founded the nonprofit. Harlem Wellness Center.

A pre-pandemic class at the Harlem Wellness Center, a donation-based nonprofit. (Courtesy of Vivian Williams-Kurutz)

The donation-based wellness center has weathered the pandemic even as its 127th Street studio has stood empty for the past year. Yet the pandemic has not spared her patrons: At a recent memorial service hosted by Williams-Kurutz, “a woman came to represent 45 people around her whom she lost to COVID,” he said. she declared.

Rochester kept the lights on at Harlem Cycle through private grants for minority women-owned businesses, she said. Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to reopen fitness studios this week will have little impact on Harlem businesses, which have such a small footprint that the 33% capacity limit gives them little reason to bring customers back.

Other than a single PPP loan, the federal government has been of little help, Rochester said.

“The government doesn’t talk about fitness at all,” she said. “You see a lot of rescue money coming to restaurants and other industries, but they’ve completely left out the one we need the most.”

“Make people move”

Now, seeking to prevent further closures, a handful of about 11 surviving Harlem fitness studios are coming together to offer free virtual classes, hoping to get neighbors thinking about wellness after a year essentially sedentary.

Kick-off on Sunday “Spring Into Fitness Sampler” will feature three weeks of virtual classes hosted by a rotating cast of local businesses, including Harlem Cycle and Wellness Center.

“The idea is just to bring attention to the issue of businesses closing,” said King, who helped organize the event through Uptown Grand Central. “Getting people moving and getting them excited about moving – and maybe enrolling in paid classes afterwards.”

Rather than competing, banding together can help studios survive the pandemic, Williams-Kurutz said.

“If you pull logs apart in a fire, they will burn,” she said. “But if you put them together, they will burn brighter.”

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