Evaristo "Risto" Grant counted down from 10 as his clients held their plank positions and shook with the effort. Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" blared in the background. Grant paced around his clients on their yoga mats, shouting words of encouragement.
It looked and sounded like any normal gym session. Except it wasn't. Grant's gym consisted of a few yoga mats and equipment underneath a strip of scaffolding in Carl Schurz Park, which borders the East River in Manhattan. People on their evening quarantine walks strolled by, many glancing with amusement at the signs Grant had taped to the scaffolding: "Get your sexy back … no more cookies!" and "Come for the party, stay for the workout!"
Grant, 57, was despondent for the first few weeks of quarantine last spring. New York City was quickly becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and everyone hunkered down at home. As a personal trainer who works for himself, Grant watched his income crumble.
Then, a lightbulb went off. Grant used some savings to buy face shields, disinfectant, hand sanitizer and some additional equipment. He set up shop in the park, which is just a few blocks from his house, and started to attract new clients.
"This is an opportunity to meet people and get prospective clients for the future," Grant said. "I just talk to people, connect, share and inspire, hopefully."
One new client is Elizabeth Pompa, a 53-year-old real estate agent living on the Upper East Side. Pompa, who used to teach Lotte Berk Technique dance-based exercise classes, has always valued fitness and personal training. Her husband struck up a conversation with Grant while working out next to him and later suggested Pompa give Grant a try. Since then, she's seen Grant once a week.
"He pushes me, but in a great way," Pompa said. "I know I'm not going to get hurt with him. For that hour, I forget everything that’s going on around me."
Casey Grillo, a 40-year-old nurse practitioner, comes to Grant's sessions twice a week. At the start of the pandemic, she would not have considered working out with others in person. But she said now that she and others know how to take the appropriate measures to stay safe, she's comfortable at Grant's sessions.
Grant holds small classes Sunday through Thursday, charging his clients $25 per session. And he teaches private clients on Fridays for $85. At every session, he wears a face shield and reminds clients to stay 6 feet apart. He disinfects equipment after every use and offers hand sanitizer to those who want it.
Grillo said she's noticed a larger community of fitness enthusiasts getting their exercise outside. She admires everyone's creativity.
"I’ve seen people use canned goods and water bottles and gallon jugs for weights," Grillo said. "It's really encouraging to see people still staying active."
Grant is not the only personal trainer using Carl Schurz as gym space. Patrick Narain, a 36-year-old trainer and martial arts instructor, has been teaching classes in Carl Schurz, Astoria Park and Central Park. At the beginning of the pandemic, he mostly did virtual classes from home without charging people. It was tough, he said, staying financially afloat on solely the tips he got from online clients. Now he's getting $15 from each class participant.
As for many people, Narain said the pandemic and subsequent quarantine have caused him anxiety.
"I find myself worrying too much about others and not really paying attention to taking care of myself," Narain said. "It really caused me a lot of stress, to the point where I couldn’t really feel my right side."
His stress slowly improved as he worked with another instructor to teach small classes in the park. He's enjoying the fresh air and open space, though he's careful not to push clients too hard in the heat.
Devin Paul, another trainer, also transitioned his business smoothly to the outdoors. He'd worked with a gym until the quarantine started, and now he's training his own clients in Carl Schurz and in Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem.
Paul, 46, has found that since he's working for himself, he's making more money and working fewer hours. He said his minimum fee for a private lesson is $100.
"I'm at a point in my life where I don’t think I'm going to go back when the gyms open," Paul said. "I can have a better peace of mind just doing everything on my own."
Paul plans to rent a training studio when the weather turns too cold to work outside.
Grant said the personal trainer community has had one another's backs through it all. He's been a part of the industry for 17 years, ever since a fellow fitness enthusiast told him he'd be a "natural." He's seeing trainers he's known for a long time using parks to their advantage, being creative and making things work.
"We just try to help each other out and stand for each other," Grant said.
Pre-pandemic, Grant had been doing well financially with his model of meeting up with clients at gyms and getting new ones through referrals. Still, he's taking the pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate his operation.
"We have to really think about how to create something for the future and see the glass as half full and be optimistic because you’ll never know what you create when you put your mind to it," he said.
For the foreseeable future, he's sticking around at his makeshift gym throughout the week, hoping to entice people to "get your sexy back."
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.