BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — José Luis Aquino, a Latin dance instructor and personal trainer, arrives at Parque Rivadavia shortly before 5 p.m., says hello to his students, and sets up a battery-powered speaker in front of a large monument to political leader Simón Bolívar.
Today, there are 14 students in his class, and they take their places in circles painted on the concrete plaza to maintain social distancing. Aquino turns the speaker on, the music starts and the group grooves. For the next hour, this center-city plaza is their dance studio.
Such scenes have become common in Buenos Aires since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Every afternoon, local parks become enormous open-air gyms, where hundreds of people take exercise classes and practice everything from taekwondo and tango to acrobatics, weightlifting, yoga, roller skating and even fencing. The popularity of open-air exercise classes has breathed new life into the city’s parks and transformed the relationship people have with public spaces.
Aquino, 57, who worked as an instructor in dance studios and gyms for two decades, says that with gyms closed for months because of lockdown restrictions, the park has become a convenient venue.
“It really benefited me. It kind of opened my mind so that I could see that there are other options,” Aquino says. “I think doing things this way is here to stay.”
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
The Argentine government has launched programs to support businesses affected by the pandemic, paying part of employees’ salaries. About 70,000 people in Argentina work in gyms, but the vast majority are freelance contractors, making them ineligible for these benefits. Only 10% are registered as employees, according to estimates from the Gymnasium Workers Union, a national network of gym instructors.
Aquino began teaching in the park by offering classes to some of his regular students from the dance studio. New students joined through word-of-mouth or after seeing him teach, and he sends updates about the class schedule via WhatsApp. He doesn’t charge a membership fee, the way gyms do. Instead, he invites students to pay what they can for each class.
Though convenient, working in the park has its downsides. There are no locker rooms or restrooms, and Aquino has to organize all the classes himself, answering questions from students over the phone and social media. Bad weather can force class cancellations.
But overall, Aquino says he doesn’t think he’ll go back to working in traditional gyms, even after the pandemic.
“From an economic standpoint, it’s better for me to work independently because I can control the schedule and the classes,” Aquino says. “I had to work almost double to earn what I’m earning now.”
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Juan Carlos Martell, an acrobatics instructor, had a similar experience. After losing his job at a gym, he decided to take his inflatable mat to the grass and teach in the open air.
“My brother and I brought the AirTrack [mat] out to the park, and it worked,” Martell says. “We’re both much better off financially, since it’s income that goes 100% to us now.”
Noelia Minatto, coordinator of the Argentine Federation of Chambers of Gyms, Swimming Centers, and Related Facilities, a group that represents the gym industry, says the shift to open-air classes puts people at risk. Parks haven’t been designed for these activities, she says. And whereas gyms are required to carry liability insurance and have instructors trained in CPR and first aid, no regulations govern outdoor exercise classes.
“Once the pandemic is over, we need to help and contribute to those who want to work independently so that they can do it safely, legally and responsibly,” Minatto says.
The Ministry of Public Space and Urban Hygiene for the city of Buenos Aires didn’t respond to an interview request.
One of Martell’s acrobatics students, Martín Zabala, says the pandemic has changed the way he thinks about the city’s parks.
“It never would have occurred to me to come to a park to exercise,” he says. “Before the pandemic, all I would see were people running or riding bikes. Now there’s a variety of diverse classes.”
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Isabel Dumas, an architect who specializes in municipal projects, says the increasing popularity of parks for exercise and other activities has generally been a good thing – creating more social interaction and encouraging a greater sense of community. But she says there is a danger that public plazas can become overcrowded.
Moms used to play and relax with their babies at these parks, Dumas says, but crowded events have taken over. “The square is not prepared for 30 people to go to a birthday party and then another 30 people go to do something else,” she says.
More green spaces are needed, she says. But Buenos Aires is already saturated with buildings and construction sites. With real estate at such a premium, there are not many parts of the city that could be turned into parks.
So instructors like Aquino and Martell plan to continue offering classes outside.
“The rain might limit us,” Aquino says, but he’s not depending on sunshine and warm days for success. Even during the winter, people continued to exercise outside in the parks. “With the cold,” Aquino says, “anyone who likes this type of activity can just bundle up and come.”