LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA
From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry.
This edition takes us to Falls Church, Virginia, where a vibrant home for circus lives just beyond the REI, an auto supply store, and a parking lot full of moving trucks.
Back in January of this year, the first thing you did when you entered Monarca in Flight’s three-room aerial studio was take off your shoes. Then, it was time to stretch. The colorful space, laden with extra-cushiony blue mats and a tidy shelf of foam rollers, warmly invited this ritual.
As students greeted one another with smiles and settled into their post-work or after-school routines, there was a comfort in making this place a regular stop for classes in aerial, flexibility and other circus skills.
Of course, this was before Covid-19. Before the pandemic disrupted this pleasant rhythm for instructors and students alike.
“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case.”
With the threat to public health looming large, the studio closed its doors on March 16th, hoping to reopen once the case numbers stabilized.
To make matters even more difficult, Monarca in Flight owner Acoatzin Torres was in Mexico at the time, acquiring immigration documents to fully secure his legal residency in the U.S.
Torres’s husband B. Keith Ryder, who manages the office at Monarca, was balancing his concern for his husband’s safe return with their shared determination to preserve the business.
“The day after he left was when the country started falling apart,” Ryder said. “The border (with Mexico) closed a couple days later,” he added. “The consulate closed the day before his appointment. We were stuck in a weird limbo, not knowing when he was going to get back.”
When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northram issued a stay-at-home order on March 30th, Torres and Ryder knew they could not safely resume operations at Monarca any time soon.
“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case,” they wrote in a Facebook post a day after the governor’s announcement.
As a result, they had to postpone their spring aerial showcase and cancel their annual C4 Weekend, a four-day marathon of circus workshops that had attracted a growing number of participants in the last few years.
A week after the shutdown, Monarca began offering online classes, including popular conditioning sessions with local aerialist Gwynne Flanagan.
Classes with charismatic titles like ‘Booty Blast’ and ‘Shake it Out’ allowed them to stay connected to their regular students while also engaging new sign-ups from across the country, Ryder said.
“We actually picked up a few new potential students through the online classes,” Ryder said. Some of these virtual offerings also allowed them to reach students outside of their usual business hours.
“We saw a fair amount of interest in the 8 a.m. classes, because it’s something to start their day,” Ryder said. “So it gives those students somewhere to go for their early morning stretch and rollout.”
After a couple of months of online-only instruction, they decided to gradually resume in-person classes in June, as Virginia loosened its restrictions on businesses like restaurants and fitness studios.
They began by inviting small groups of regular students back for open studio aerial sessions, “just to get back into the practice of having people in the space,” Ryder said.
“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”
In addition to the usual safety measures of mandatory masks and physical distancing, Monarca shifted to operating every other day, giving them time to disinfect in between sessions. Ryder says he runs an ozone generator overnight to kill any lingering contaminants, and also purchased medical-grade air filters to minimize risk during the day.
Despite stressing frequent cleaning and disinfection, Ryder said that cultivating a safe and responsible culture is the most important part of reopening a business right now.
“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them,” Ryder said.
“People go a little bit crazy sanitizing surfaces,” Ryder said. “That’s great, but that’s not really the big vector of infection. It’s the airborne stuff. So, do not be afraid to insist that people wear masks all the time,” he added.
In addition to gradually welcoming their students back in late June, Ryder also celebrated Torres’s return — with documents to secure his legal residency in hand — on July 10th. And following two weeks of quarantine at a local hotel, Torres was finally home for good.
“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity.”
In September, Torres resumed teaching aerial classes, and started to recruit new students outside of the studio’s pre-pandemic membership base.
“We want to make sure that whoever’s coming in — whether they’re taking a drop-in class or they have a punch-card — they are totally aware of our guidelines,” he said.
While the lengthy closure and limits on in-person class attendance have certainly impacted the studio financially, Ryder said they will stay in business. This week marked the fourth anniversary of their opening in October 2016.
“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity,” he said. “That’s over a year away I think. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on the studio to provide family income. As long as it breaks even or doesn’t lose too much, we’re okay.”
As for how the government of Virginia can help businesses like theirs during this time, Ryder said leadership is key.
“There’s not a whole lot Virginia can do other than continue to lead the way in making sure that the policies that come out of Richmond are as smart and as safe as possible,” he said.
To sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit www.monarcainflight.com. Note that enrollment for new students may be limited at this time.
“If someone is having their first experience with flying trapeze, we wanted it to be just as good as it would’ve been before Covid.”
In part four of the Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Mandy Keithan, general manager at the Trapeze School of New York (DC) about the school’s journey through 2020 thus far.