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How close-contact businesses like dance studios and massage therapy are faring during the pandemic

people dancing in front of a mirror at a dance studio
Susan Byrd, director of Living Arts Dance Studio, says she has plans for how to safely reopen indoor classes this fall. “There’s ways of making this fun. There’s ways of working through it,” she said.";s:3:"u

Some Michigan businesses have been able to retool and reopen this summer under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 “Safe Start” plan. But for businesses that usually rely on close physical contact with clients, adapting to life under the pandemic is uniquely complicated. One example? Dance studios.

“It’s been a really difficult time,” said Susan Byrd, the director of Living Arts Dance Studio, which has locations in Williamston and Mason. “We did lose students right away, and then our enrollment dropped.” Dance studios, gyms, and other fitness centers are still prohibited from offering indoor services under the governor’s current executive order.

Byrd says the studio was able to offer outdoor camps this summer, but it’s been challenging to keep kids focused in the hot weather. While some parents are hesitant about a possible fall session indoors, most of the parents who have enrolled their children want in-studio training rather than Zoom classes. And Byrd says she believes they are equipped to safely do those classes indoors. 

“We have a safety plan in action,” Byrd said. “We can socially distance—we’re dancers, we’re good at spacing people out. And we’re planning on wearing masks, cleaning in between classes.”

Byrd says that while the months of social distancing have been challenging for everybody, parents have told her their kids need physical exercise opportunities like dance.

“I do see kids outside in the park, and they’re dancing, and I’m just watching the expressions on their face and the movement through their bodies, and how it’s so healing and beneficial for them—I mean, from head to toe and from body to soul,” she said.

While massage therapists have been allowed to operate indoors since June, they have had to make major changes to their business model. Heidi Johnson is a massage therapist and the owner of Thrive Massage and Bodywork in Ann Arbor. After months of being closed, she was able to reopen in a limited capacity after June 15. Now, she sees only two or three clients per day, instead of 10 to 15, and is working without her staff. Like Byrd, Johnson says she’s noticed that the pandemic (and social distancing) has taken a toll on people.

“It's mentally exhausting. It’s anxiety provoking,” Johnson said. “And then we think about people who actually live alone, and they’re really touch starved. So some people are just feeling like, what a relief to actually come in and receive a massage.”

For the few bookings she does see each day, Johnson has put in place a number of new safety measures, including pre- and post-session check-ins with clients. She’s also taking temperatures and disinfecting the space between every appointment. Johnson said she expects these safety measures will stay in place for months to come because of how close massage therapists need to be to their clients. So she’s trying to adjust her work environment while ensuring folks are still able to relax.

“That is the delicate balance right now, in the face of a pandemic, that I'm open and able to create this environment for clients,” she said. “Really, it starts with me. It starts with each massage therapist, finding that calm space, feeling like they’re making the right decision to return to work, that they can offer relaxation to their clients.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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