The COVID-19 crisis forced Dharma Yoga Studio in Coconut Grove to quickly pivot to a fully online model. The idea was to offer a variety of Zoom classes for a few months to get through the lockdown, and then return to the cozy ground-floor studio that had become an integral part of the Grove since 2009.
But as the pandemic dragged on and case numbers continued to hit records in Florida, the small business had to make a choice: continue paying rent or pay the few teachers that remain with the studio. So Dharma canceled its lease in late June and shut down the brick-and-mortar studio indefinitely, with no short-term plan to reopen, said owner Natalie Morales.
“Emotionally it was a hard decision to make, but logistically it was the best solution for the studio and especially for the teachers,” she said.
After Miami-Dade went under quarantine in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, gyms and yoga studios like Dharma moved online to generate at least some revenue from loyal clients and keep instructors employed. But demand has dwindled as some students realized that online yoga wasn’t for them, or simply didn’t have the means to continue paying for classes, Morales said.
The studio, which used to offer 40 classes a week before the new coronavirus led to sweeping business closures in much of the US, now livestreams 28 sessions. Of the 20 teachers guiding students through Vinyasa, Hatha and power yoga classes, only 12 remain.
And government relief programs have offered limited help. Morales received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $12,000 in May, but most of the funds must be used to pay the salaries of her two employees who serve as virtual front-desk workers organizing the studio’s activities. Her heaviest expense — the studio’s teachers — are considered independent contractors, so their salaries need to be covered by students’ fees. Engaging paying yoga students is getting harder as uncertainty mounts and residents wonder how much longer Miami-Dade will remain under social-distancing and mask-wearing rules.
As students started dropping out, Morales decided to give discounts. Back in May, Dharma was offering a special package of 10 classes for $108, compared with $150 regularly, or $165 for an unlimited one-month pass. The discounted package price is still valid today, while the monthly pass dropped to $150.
“These are hard times and everybody is struggling,” Morales said. “We will see how long we can last.”
She said the studio applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the US Small Business Administration but hasn’t received an answer yet.
Going forward, Morales said the question for a yoga studio is who will want to go back to a room where people are not only cramped together and sweating, but where they are breathing deeply on purpose. That adds another layer of concern as there’s mounting evidence that the coronavirus is airborne, she said.
“And we chant, and exhale loudly,” she said. Scientists have observed that the coronavirus can spread in respiratory aerosols, which may linger in the air for hours. An enclosed yoga studio may increase the risk of contagion for students, she added.
“We have to be realistic about that. Even if we feel strong and even if we are not afraid to get sick, well, we have to think about our ‘viejitos’ and other vulnerable people around us.”