“Lightning” Kris Lopez at his boxing gym, Lightning Lopez Boxing Club, in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When non-essential businesses closed last spring, fitness buffs were forced to change their workout habits. Trips to the gym and yoga studio were replaced by home workouts and outdoor hikes. Personal fitness items like stationary bikes and kettlebells flew off shelves, as people rushed to set up their home gyms. Meanwhile, fitness centers of all types took a hit.

Now, with Alameda County being downgraded to the red tier on March 9 and the less-restrictive orange tier on March 30 due to the lower number of COVID-19 cases, gyms are among the businesses being allowed to resume indoor operations in a limited capacity. 

We spoke with the owners of three independent fitness centers in Oakland—a boxing club, a yoga studio, and a dance studio—to see how they’re taking advantage of the loosening restrictions.  

“I have fighters, and this is their livelihood”

Photos by Amir Aziz

“Lightning” Kris Lopez, a former professional boxer and owner of Lightning Lopez Boxing Club on Seminary Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, opened his gym right away, at 10% capacity, after the county announced its move to the red tier. This week he bumped capacity up to 25%, the maximum occupancy level allowed for gyms in the orange tier.

Lopez, an Oakland native, got his start as a fighter in the late 90s at King’s Boxing Gym in Fruitvale, and started his own gym 10 years ago when his now 17-year-old son expressed an interest in boxing. The club had been closed for most of the pandemic, but Lopez found ways to continue working with individual fighters, including his son. 

“I have fighters and this is their livelihood, so I have to train them,” he told The Oaklandside. Lopez trained his fighters at local parks but said not being able to work in the gym “put them at a disadvantage.” 

A large portion of Lopez’s clientele are families with children who like to train together, so he implemented a group system where pairs can schedule time at the club, which includes a full-size boxing ring, battle ropes, a variety of punching bags, and weight sets. When one pair exits the gym, another can come in and exercise. 

Those regular customers are helping Lopez keep his doors open, but business isn’t what it was. ”Not even close,” he said. “We hope COVID becomes more manageable to the point where people aren’t scared anymore.” 

Lopez said boxing gyms like his rely on in-person interactions because equipment is needed to get the most out of a training session, unlike some types of fitness businesses like yoga or dance studios.

“A win-win for our community members and creatives”

Having the option to offer virtual courses allowed Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli and Samar Nassar, co-owners of Hipline Dance Studio on Lakeshore Avenue, to keep their business going throughout the pandemic.

All of Hipline’s dance classes can be taken online, either live or recorded, which has allowed the studio to keep all of its 13 instructors on staff. The virtual sessions have also allowed some instructors who moved away due to the pandemic, to stay with Hipline.

“We were able to provide work and provide a new service, which was a win-win for our community members and these creatives who want to move and dance,” said Nassar-Covarelli. Hipline was recently declared “best virtual dance studio” by the East Bay Express.

Brandy Petricka, an Oakland resident who’s been attending classes at Hipline for eight years, has been satisfied with the move to virtual classes. “I don’t know what I would have done at the beginning of this pandemic if it weren’t for Hipline,” she said. “Being a mom, getting out of the house for even an hour is a challenge. This forced me to create space for myself in my own home.” 

Hipline currently has no plans to resume operating indoors, even though they technically could.

“Our community was built on strong in-person connections and we’ve always tried to be an inclusive space, and it just didn’t feel inclusive to open at 10%,” Nassar-Covarelli said. “If we opened at 10%, which would probably be four or five people at a time, those would probably be people who had access to resources and privileges that others might not have.” 

Nassar-Covarelli said the studio may consider reopening for in-person classes once COVID restrictions become even less restrictive. Dance studios can currently operate at 25% capacity under the orange tier. 

“What most of our Hipline community have expressed is not feeling comfortable returning at this time,” Nassar-Covarelli said. “We’re going to wait until we can get to 60 to 100% (capacity) to reopen.” 

“I’m not totally comfortable with jumping back”

Flying Studios owner, Laura Camp, inside of her yoga and dance studio located in Temescal, Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Laura Camp of Flying Studios, a Yoga business, on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland also has no intention of reopening for indoor classes anytime soon. She’s currently using the studio as a daycare center for children, and teaching outdoor yoga classes at Mosswood Park.

Camp, who’s been teaching yoga in Oakland for a decade, plans to turn her business into a hybrid community center, daycare service, and yoga studio. “It’s the natural evolution after being open for over 10 years,” she said.

The desire to adapt is tied in large part COVID-19, and lingering uncertainties about the reopening process. Like Nassar-Covarelli at Hipline, Camp is concerned about how safely she can actually resume indoor operations without risking the health of her clients. Dance studios can currently operate at 25% capacity.

“I’m not totally comfortable with jumping back into that because the number one risk factor for transmitting COVID is being hot and sweaty in a closed room for an extended duration,” Camp said. “I want to see those vaccination numbers go up because safety is my number one priority.”  

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.