BANGKOK — Akachai Apaisrila used to be a freelance gym instructor, teaching dedicated gym goers fat-blasting zumba steps. But then, in one stroke, the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his income to zero.
Akachai is one of the many workers in Thailand’s fitness industry, which was practically shut down when a semi-lockdown was imposed in March. With the second wave of COVID-19 seemingly out of control in Thailand, gyms and fitness centers have been told to close down once again, starting Saturday until Jan. 17 – at least.
“My income disappeared completely during the first wave,” Akachai said. “I still remember the date, March 18, when all my work was gone.”
Akachai used to make as much as 70,000 baht a month as a freelance dance and zumba instructor at gyms. Forced out of job by the pandemic, he had to rely on government handouts for the unemployed for some months. Akachai eventually found work as a supply analyst at a hospital in August, though he earned half as much.
At the same time, Akachai still worked part time as a gym trainer, but he was aware that the wellness career was no longer a reliable one. He was proven right when the second wave struck in December, cutting short his gym employment for good.
“I knew that I needed a new career, something stable and that would be hard to get fired from, so I looked at hospitals,” the 28-year-old said. “I knew there would be a second wave… I knew I had to collect and save as much money as I could before the gyms closed again.”
Bangkok and 27 provinces are now under the “Red Zones,” an area designated by health authorities as having the highest risk of virus transmission. Restaurants were banned from offering dine-in services from 9pm to 6am. A number of businesses were also shuttered, including schools, theme parks, bars, massage parlors, and gyms.
‘I Was Caught Off Guard’
Predictably, the pandemic has been devastating for the fitness industry in Thailand, which had been burgeoning prior to the coronavirus outbreak – interest in spin classes, zumba, crossfit, and personal training has been on the rise over the past couple of years.
The second partial-lockdown in Bangkok also hit before many gyms could recover their members. Gym managers are feeling that burn. One of them is Eakanon Klinhom, who manages Anytime Fitness Gym in Yannawa district. He said the business operated at a loss in 2020.
“Fitness isn’t an essential need, so a lot of members were gone, especially office workers and students,” Eakanon said in an interview. “Even though we could reopen in July, a lot of people didn’t come back.”
The company managed to keep their staff on, but everyone had their pay and working hours reduced by 20 percent. Any hopes of a quick recovery were dashed when the virus resurgence was reported in mid-December. The gym soon emptied, even before the government’s shutdown order arrived.
“I was caught off guard,” Eakanon said. “I asked our customers to understand. What we can do now is try to freeze everything, such as the rent and franchise fees.”
Fitness industry was worth about 12.6 billion baht in 2019, the latest year of available data published by the Department of Business Development. The number of fitness centers registered with the government also increased from 533 in 2017 to 691 in 2019.
“The pandemic has been good and bad for the fitness industry,” Suzanne Hosley, founder of Fitness Innovations Thailand, said in an interview.
“Good, because people are more conscious and concerned about their health,” she said. “And bad, because operations were closed for 3 months last year, meaning no income for 25 percent of the year.”
Professional trainers who kept their job, such as Congolese strongman Patient Cena, had to make do with reduced work hours and pay, thanks to a lack of gym goers.
Cena, 30, works at FitWhey gym in Ladprao 101. During the first semi-lockdown, he did live workouts on Facebook Live to keep his members engaged. Although Cena was lucky to stay on as a full-time employee, all the freelancers were left without work.
“It’s very tough for all the trainers right now and all the gyms,” Cena said. “I thought it would pick up again after the last lockdown finished, but it was very hard. Now the lockdown came again.”
Even when gyms reopened, his clients didn’t return, halving his pre-COVID income. Classes were limited to 10 people, compared to 35 in the more normal times.
Cena’s first personal training session since the pandemic struck in March was scheduled for Monday at 10am, after nearly a year of hiatus. Of course, it was cancelled.
“I still believe 2021 is gonna be a great year. We are fighters. We’re gonna fight. Nothing can stop us,” Cena said. “We can’t just give up because of corona.”