Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
Dan Yeung now works in a new normal. A personal trainer in Hong Kong’s heaving Central district, he returned to his gym on May 9, six weeks after the government shuttered indoor venues amid a wave of Covid-19 infections.
He’s back training his clients – but it’s a different world. Treadmills are separated by partitions; hand sanitisers and wipes are only outnumbered by the dumbbells; members must have their temperatures checked and declare that they haven’t come into contact with anyone with Covid in the past 14 days; masks, although not mandatory, are now a workout essential.
In the age of social distancing, training is very much a hands-off affair. “We have to avoid all non-essential contact,” explains Yeung, who works by appointment in a private gym. “We don’t get people coming in without knowing their travel history. Group classes are limited to eight, and a minimum one-and-a-half-metre distance has to be kept. But it’s been back to ‘normal’ quickly, actually.”
Hong Kong reopened businesses following aggressive testing and quarantine measures which have resulted in only 1,056 confirmed Covid cases and four deaths. Across the Pacific, a cluster of Southern US states – including Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee – have also reopened gyms. But with loose state laws, some owners have had to enforce their own social distancing and hygiene measures, ranging from mandatory mask use to closed-off changing rooms. Numbers have been capped, but many are seemingly staying away anyway.
In the UK, the entire hospitality and leisure sector, which includes gyms, cinemas and theme parks, has been effectively closed since March 20, just days before Boris Johnson announced the full lockdown of the country. The return date circled on calendars is July 4: according to the government’s exit strategy, it’s the earliest that such industries can reopen. Bosses are now scrambling to reconfigure their businesses for a new normal – one of social distancing.
Humphrey Cobbold is among those planning for an unknown future. The CEO of PureGym, the UK’s biggest chain, Cobbold is working with industry body ukactive in drawing up new guidelines that means gyms can open in the era of coronavirus. “Gyms shouldn’t be held back. They can be managed so the risk is no greater than at other places. We have a real role to play in getting the country back to normal and healthy.”
The draft plans include Hong Kong-style pre-check questionnaires, reduced gym capacity, perspex screens, two-by-two-metre workout stations taped off and constant, on-the-go cleaning regimes. Members, meanwhile, will book workout slots via an app. Cobbold, who is currently in talks with representatives of Public Health England and the chief medical officer, says PureGym is also looking at acquiring UVC disinfection robots for overnight scrubbing. “We also have up to 500,000 masks in storage, or coming into stock. Whether they’ll be mandatory, we’re still working on that.” Cobbold is already seeing some of the protocols in action – PureGym owns 39 gyms in Switzerland, which opened their doors on May 11. “They’re going fine.”
Cinema chains are also gearing up for a July reopening. Vue has said it will stagger film times and isolate groups through its online booking system. But it is independent venues, which exist on smaller margins, that have been hardest hit. “We’re surviving on cash reserves, government grants and donations from supporters,” explains Oliver Meek, executive director of east London’s Rio Cinema, which survived the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. “We’ve furloughed everyone except for myself and the bookkeeper – we’ve shrunk down as much as we can to survive as long as we can.”
In order to see this embed, you must give consent to Social Media cookies. Open my cookie preferences.
Unlike gyms, cinemas can’t look abroad for inspiration in what works in the social distancing era – nearly all are shuttered around the world. South Korea is one of the very few with open sites: some have begun using smart kiosks which means tickets and snacks can be purchased without any human interaction; others have robots which escort film-goers to the toilets instead of staff pointing the way.
But for British cinema bosses like Meek, this sounds like the plot from a sci-fi movie. “I’ll be going in with a tape measure,” he says. “Seats are about 50cm wide – we’ll probably have to take out four seats for every one, while leaving some for pairs and slightly larger groups. We’re an old fashioned picture palace: our main auditorium is large with 400 seats across two levels. I think we’ll drop down to 120, but we’re fortunate in that that’s still a good capacity, we can tick over – as long as we get films that people want to see.”
Therein lies another problem for cinemas – they exist only if the movies exist. And, from Bond to Peter Rabbit, studios have been consistently postponing theirs in the wake of coronavirus. Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Tenet, and Disney’s Mulan live-action remake are still slated for a July release, however. “We haven’t programmed for two months and there’s no confirmation of what’s available,” Meek adds. “It’s difficult. We’ll need to have perspex screens behind the bar and staff might need PPE.”
Shanghai Disneyland opened its doors on May 11. The park is operating at 20 per cent capacity: queues have been slashed; space on rides is plentiful. Visitors must wear face masks, have temperatures taken and show green Covid-free QR codes on entry. Hugs with characters are strictly forbidden. Disney’s other parks have remained tight-lipped on when, and how, they’ll exactly reopen. Although tickets can be purchased for July 1 onwards in its California and Florida resorts, a Walt Disney World spokesperson stressed that no reopening date has been determined.
Disney is estimated to have lost at least $30 million (£24m) for every day its Shanghai gates were shut. For British theme parks, the margins may be smaller, but the situation looks far graver. Richard Mancey, chair of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, estimates that 70 per cent of a typical venue’s income is earned from May until September. He says Merlin Entertainments – the owner of Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures and Alton Towers – has needed a £50m cash injection to cover operational costs. Smaller attractions might not make it to autumn. “These are family-run businesses who have only weeks of cash reserves remaining. There are government loans but they’re frightened to take on more debt.”
Keith Neal, professor emeritus of infectious disease epidemiology at Nottingham University, believes theme parks are equipped to operate in the social distancing age. “They’re predominantly outside, which helps. Families could ride in the same car, then you could separate people in other cars relatively safely.” He adds that many attractions can reopen. “Zoos could be opened easily – it’s warm, indoor areas like the reptile house which would need to be closed. Museums and art galleries could limit numbers in rooms, then incorporate buzzer systems when people need to move on.”
Without a vaccine in the short-term, gyms, cinemas, theme parks and thousands of leisure and hospitality businesses will be forced to turn to a host of social distancing and hygiene measures, or face potentially permanent closure.
As the threat of the virus recedes, the challenge will be not just about making venues safe, but also about convincing customers – who have been bombarded with messaging about staying at home – that it is in fact safe for them to return. Are disinfection robots and perspex screens more about appeasing frightened customers than actually stopping the spread of coronavirus? Do these measures stray into security theatre?
According to the cryptographer who popularised the term, none of it is for show. “Security theatre works when the reality of the threat is much less than the perceived threat,” explains Bruce Schneier. “The risk from terrorism is basically zero, but everyone is still terrified of it, so security theatre like the airport liquids rule helps everyone feel better. Covid is the opposite: people are downplaying and minimising the threat; any measure put in place will improve safety.”
With coronavirus, it seems to be that every little helps. However, Neal, who worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, does have some doubts on the effectiveness of temperature screenings. “Handheld checks are labour-intensive. Anyone who has a high fever will feel ill – they shouldn’t be out.” And masks? “They can’t do much harm and they might do some good. Wearing one for hours isn’t particularly comfortable, whereas plastic screens mean you can’t breathe on someone – that’s a great advantage.”
Businesses could be feasible in the age of social distancing – Cobbold estimates that a typical PureGym branch would reopen at maximum 50 per cent capacity. But will they be viable? “Nothing will ever be worse than operating at zero revenue for three months,” Cobbold says. Mancey, who is also managing director of family attraction Paultons Park in Hampshire, agrees. “Now, it’s all about survival. We really only have the summer holidays left to last until next season. Soon, attractions will have to weigh up whether it’s worth opening just for one month’s earnings.”
Until there’s a vaccine, it’s likely that the new normal will soon feel very ordinary for gyms, theme parks and cinemas – if they’re given the green light to open, come July 4. “It’s going to be really difficult, but we can keep going,” says Meek. “Hopefully, there’ll be better news over time. But we can still exist in the social distancing age.”
Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.
Coronavirus coverage from WIRED
📖 How coronavirus kills, one organ at a time
🏘️ Failing care homes are the real coronavirus scandal
🔒 The UK’s lockdown rules, explained
❓ The UK’s job retention furlough scheme, explained
💲 Can Universal Basic Income help fight coronavirus?
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.