New York’s latest reopening guidelines for local businesses have left dance and yoga studios in a state of limbo, with no clear pathway or timeline for moving forward, owners told THE CITY.
Their owners join a growing chorus of business operators who feel unfairly left out of the state and city’s plans — along with movie theaters and casinos statewide, as well restaurants in the five boroughs pushing for indoor dining.
While Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week cleared the way for gyms to reopen as early as Monday — at one-third capacity and with added safety measures — he left it up to local officials to make a determination on indoor fitness centers.
That category includes yoga and dance studios, exercise classes inside gyms, boxing gyms, spin classes and fitness boot camps, according to officials.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week not only pushed back the reopening of gyms until Sept. 2 at the earliest — citing a need for health inspectors to focus on public schools before gyms — but also nixed the reopening of indoor fitness centers and indoor pools.
Adding to their frustration, owners of dance and yoga studios say city officials have offered them no timetable for reopening, or citywide COVID-19 testing benchmarks that would allow the financially struggling businesses to open their doors.
Healthy Industry ‘Dying’
“They’re saying we’re not going to decide about this, because our jobs are really hard. But an entire industry that keeps people healthy is dying,” said Yosara Trujillo, 49, owner of Sweetwater Dance & Yoga in the Concourse Village section of The Bronx.
“If I lose my studio, I’m bankrupt,” she added. “And God only knows if I am already and just don’t know it.”
Trujillo says there’s been confusion throughout the coronavirus crisis about where dance and yoga studios fall on the reopening timeline.
She’s among those in the industry who say some studios have already opened, many by categorizing themselves as fine arts, cultural or educational institutions under the terms of the reopening guidelines.
State officials say their guidelines have been clear all along that indoor fitness centers weren’t allowed to operate, under the same sports and recreation category as gyms.
The centers have been allowed to hold classes outside, with a limit of 50 people, they said.
With the timeline for the reopening of gyms, bowling alleys and museums already set, Trujillo points to the mayor’s insistence that in-school classes can be held safely as a sign that any hurdles can be overcome with proper planning.
“The same way that you trust you’re going to have a classroom of kids properly spaced out with improved air filtration… is the same way the studios and gyms can figure this out,” she said. “My studio happens to have 14-foot ceilings. I can put in an air filtration system. We’re good.”
The latest metrics showing a reduction in the spread of coronavirus in New York City have left advocates for still-shuttered sectors scratching their heads about what more government officials need to see before they’ll give them a green light.
On one day last week the percentage of those tested who had a positive result for COVID-19 in New York City dropped to 0.24%, according to de Blasio, while state officials on Saturday announced the “lowest positivity rate since COVID began” — of 0.69%.
Nevertheless on Friday, de Blasio acknowledged on WNYC radio that “we do not have a plan for reopening indoor dining in the near term.”
Earlier in the week, he said he was taking a “conservative approach” to reopening facilities such as gyms, because “we’re very concerned about indoor settings.”
De Blasio administration officials have pointed to a surge of new cases in other cities after reopenings moved too quickly as an example of what they’re trying to avoid.
“Other cities have shown us how quickly COVID-19 can return, and we’re determined to heed those warnings,” said Mitch Schwartz, a de Blasio spokesperson.
“For now, that means avoiding high-risk indoor activities – especially ones that involve concentrations of people, breathing heavily, in small spaces,” he added. “We know this is a really hard time for small businesses, and we’ll do everything we can to connect them to services.”
City Hall officials cited the support that’s being offered by the Office of Small Business Services, which they say has helped more than 4,000 businesses get over $74 million in financing.
After shuttering their studio for three months, Renata Shvarts and Igor Litvinov reopened the Ballroom Hub in Manhattan’s Flatiron District on July 20 — the first day that Phase Four of the state’s reopening plan launched in the city.
They said they had called 311 to double-check that their reading of the rules had been accurate, and were given no conflicting information.
The owners said they went over the top in cleaning and safety measures: They put up barriers, reduced capacity and took other steps to ensure that they protected their dancers — some of whom compete internationally. They instituted temperature checks for anyone who came in.
“We had a procedure like it was a goddamn hospital,” said Shvarts, 44.
Just eight days later, officers from the city Sheriff’s Office who said they were responding to a 311 complaint arrived and ordered them to shut down, the co-owners said.
They said about a half-dozen people were in the studio at the time, including a couple in the changing room and a couple that was dancing — all wearing masks.
The sheriff’s officials, Shvarts and Litvinov said, ordered them to close because they were akin to a gym, which weren’t yet allowed to open.
The next day, according to Shvarts and Litvinov, a different set of sheriff’s officials came into the studio as the wooden floors were already being removed and packed up.
“They said, ‘It looks like someone closed your business incorrectly. We’re here to say you’re OK to continue to operate,’” Shvarts recalled.
A half-hour after those officers left, Litvinov said, a third group of officers arrived — this time with a clear mandate.
“Those three were really like, ‘No way. Just close right now and that’s it. You’re a gym,’” he said.
The frustration and confusion over the closure prompted several clients of the studio to launch a petition that has garnered nearly 5,000 signatures.
Among the concerns cited are the independent instructors who rent studio space in order to teach, who have been left without a workspace.
“All those teachers have nowhere to teach … they don’t have anywhere to take their students,” said Litvinov. “You can only do so much on Zoom.”
At the nearby PMT House of Dance, Pavan Thimmaiah said his studio was also shut down temporarily a few weeks ago by city officials after he opened up believing that it was OK.
He says the industry hasn’t been consulted on the guidelines for reopening, and needs to be given a chance to prove that it can operate safely.
“This is a tough time,” he said. “We need to be given the opportunity to earn a living. People need a little ray of hope.”