020221_yoga

A group of yoga students take a class in the Vine’s outdoor space.

Like many, Elisabeth Ruff wanted to open a business to share what she loves — yoga and wellness. But even before she could open the doors of Salt AER Studios in Brunswick, the coronavirus pandemic struck and everything changed in an instant.

“We closed for the pandemic the day before the grand opening. It was surreal after working hard for weeks. I, being fully engrossed in this place, had no idea what was going on out in the world ... I was in shock,” she said.

“We went from hustling and bustling, full of staff ready to welcome guests ... to nothing. I was heartbroken as I began having to cut staff hours so soon after we opened. I even lost my studio manager as I could not afford that position when we opened back up.”

But Ruff and other new business owners weren’t alone in their confusion. Established yoga and wellness centers were also at a loss. Patricia Ploeger, owner of Omcore Yoga and Body on St. Simons Island, faced challenges she’s never experienced in nine years of owning her studio.

“The yoga and fitness industry has been hit extra hard due to the nature of what we primarily do which is, of course, exercise in groups,” she said.

Omcore closed the day the local schools closed and stayed shuttered through early summer. Ploeger took what steps she could — freezing memberships, extending class pass expiration dates and offering online options. But even with being proactive, it certainly wasn’t easy.

“The biggest challenges we faced in the beginning were that we had zero income during that time, we had no idea what we were doing and we didn’t have the proper equipment to produce quality virtual material,” she said.

“We did our best, though, and people seemed appreciative and grateful for the videos. In fact, I’ve received messages from people all over the world who have thanked us for our free YouTube videos.”

One thing Ploeger was able to do was partner with other local business owners like Kelly Revels and Bryce Brock at The Vine, who offered their outdoor space as a yoga class venue.

“I started offering classes there on Saturday mornings and, after class, people could pop into the garden center (which has giant, open glass doors) and shop. It was very uplifting after over two months of everything being shut down, and everyone being somewhat isolated from each other,” she said.

Omcore reopened on June 1, following CDC guidelines and limited class sizes. They also implemented extra sanitizing procedures on top of already a stringent cleaning protocol.

“We’ve also set up ‘sanitation stations’ and signs to encourage participants to be mindful of spacing and sanitizing. It works extremely well, and people feel comfortable and safe; however, we are still functioning at about 40 percent capacity which means we are running the business with a 60 percent decrease in overall revenue for the same amount of work ... or more,” she said.

Like Ploeger, Neely Hunter, owner of Balance Wellness Studio, has also been faced with reconfiguring her longstanding business. The yoga, fitness and body work facility also relies on in-person interactions for classes and treatments.

Even after instituting strict protocol and reopening, Hunter says the challenge is a daily one.

“We closed our lobby to walk-in traffic, required all of our clients and students to call or text for entry and closed our waiting area. For several months, we restricted all attendance to previously established clients and students, and reduced the hours that we were open — increasing time between appointments and classes, as well as limiting how many options we had available,” she said.

“Because small-group classes and personal services inherently require personal contact, we’ve also had to make a commitment to regular testing and quarantining when we’ve had possible exposure, which has put many of our staff out of work for two weeks at a time, multiple times.”

Hunter says trying to navigate the layers of red tape has been a monumental task. It was also emotionally draining as she tried to find solutions to a myriad of problems.

One of the main issues Hunter encountered was the way governmental assistance was distributed. Since her business functions with independent contractors rather than employees, they were unable to receive needed funds to cover collective costs.

“Our business has zero employees. We have 18 to 25 people who are independent contractors or sole proprietors. So, in one vein, we’re more micro-business than small business. Even if we had employees, the needs of our studio with 18 people are far different than a business with hundreds of employees,” Hunter said.

“Each of us was eligible for individual relief, but had to apply for it on our own, and for the most part that relief would assist with our personal finances, but was not really enough to cover the shared expenses of the business.”

But even with these seemingly insurmountable challenges, these business owners have found the perseverance to continue. Hunter says that while it’s been a difficult time, she’s learned much.

“ Definitely lots of lessons. Being forced to cut back my hours and still having so much work to do that I could have continued to work a 40-hour week was a real eye-opener. I had no idea how much I was trying to cram into every week or why I could never get it done,” she said.

“Taking appointments out of my schedule and just doing the administrative part of running our studio left me plenty busy. I’m fairly certain when we are back to something more akin to normal that I need to hire an administrator of some sort.”

And the messages that they share with their students and clients continue to propel them forward.

“Overall, like many of life’s challenges, the pandemic has been difficult to endure but it has provided the opportunity to learn and grow and cultivate ingenuity, patience and gratitude,” Ploeger said.

Ruff agrees, and notes that prayer, meditation and listening to her heart have helped pull her through.

“Listening to wise people around me, love and support from family, friends, staff, clients and the community is the reason we are able to continue to be here and strive to make it better each day,” she said.

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