5 Considerations for Rolling Back Your Gym’s COVID Protocols

As some health authorities lift COVID-19 restrictions, these considerations can help you implement a phased, data-driven approach to rolling back COVID-19 protocols while prioritizing member safety.

Recently several U.S. states made the news when they did away with all COVID-19 related restrictions, including mask policies and building capacity limits. While these decisions allow fitness centers more flexibility, it also means each business must now chart its own course as it considers lifting restrictions while continuing to keep members safe.

To see the guidelines in place in your state, see IHRSA’s U.S. Reopening Guidelines Comparison Chart.

We’ve compiled five key considerations for implementing a phased rollback of mitigation measures and spoken to three Texas club operators about how they handled the governor’s lifting of all restrictions in early March.

5 Key Considerations for a Phased Rollback

1. What protocols will remain long-term?

Some of the safety protocols put in place over the last year may never be rolled back. Consider for example upgrades to ventilation systems like installation of MERV-13 filters, implementation of purification technologies, or enhanced outdoor air exchange. Some clubs may plan to keep new exercise classes or to extend changes to layout, for example.

This is especially important considering some U.S. states, including Texas, have language in the executive orders repealing restrictions that will automatically reinstate them if hospital capacity reaches a certain threshold. For many clubs, it makes sense to keep some protocols, especially those that are harder to reinstate, in place for a while.

It can be important to communicate these protocols with your members—many may feel safer when they realize that the removal of some key, widely reported restrictions, like capacity limits and masks, does not mean there are no safety protocols in place whatsoever. And now that investments have been made, some of these protocols can provide benefits long after COVID-19 ceases to be a global emergency.

“I believe giving our customers confidence in their safety and health is the most important thing we can do as a player in their wellness care.”

Dave Cardone

Memorial Athletic Club - Houston, TX

2. What protocols will you keep in the near term?

When the governor lifted all COVID-19 related restrictions in Texas, a number of clubs opted to continue operating with protocols in place.

Both Memorial Athletic Club and The Houstonian made no changes to their protocols following the governor’s order. Cher Herris, Houstonian club general manager, said, “Although we are hopeful for the future, our leadership did not feel it was time to loosen our safety protocols.”

However, with an increase in vaccination rates, they did feel comfortable adding a few extra spots to group exercise classes, though everyone must still reserve a space and participants have at least 6 feet of distance.

“The plan is to feather back various access points and amenities,” said Dave Cardone, general manager of Memorial Athletic Club.

Cardone said the club is closely watching county health data from the hospital system and school district, and will start increasing attendance limits and programs in April if positive trends continue. This data-driven approach should help build community confidence and support for the club’s policies.

“After the last year, unfortunately, the community's confidence is going to be lagging the actual successes of the COVID-19 survival rates and vaccination progress. I believe giving our customers confidence in their safety and health is the most important thing we can do as a player in their wellness care,” Cardone told IHRSA.

The Corpus Christi Athletic Club has also kept many protocols in place, including blocked out spaces in their studios and requiring members to remain in their space during class, said Lisa Gorsline, president/CEO of the club. Cleaning is also still encouraged with the provision of a personal disinfectant bottle and towel for members to clean equipment before and after use. Equipment is spaced out six feet apart and rotated weekly.

3. What will you do about masks?

This is often the biggest question on people’s minds. While it is safe to exercisein a mask or face covering, and they are highly effective for reducing COVID-19 transmission, it can be uncomfortable, especially during high intensity exercise. Masks can at times be a divisive issue, and now clubs must determine—without any input from the government—whether or not they will continue to require them all or some of the time.

Clubs should consider a few factors when making decisions about mask policies.

  • What will instill confidence from your community? Some people will undoubtedly be excited to remove masks, but many still feel fine wearing them and may even be more comfortable with their ongoing use.
  • What environmental factors are you working with? If you have a well-ventilated area with plenty of distance between people or equipment, an optional mask policy may be more feasible. However, a less well-ventilated studio with lots of people and/or high intensity activity may require a different approach.
  • What data will you use to inform and support your decision? However, you choose to proceed, it should be informed by evidence. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing masks even during exercise in two Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report articles dealing with fitness center-based outbreaks. But they have also provided more nuanced guidance.

The Texas club operators we spoke to made limited or no changes to their mask policies. The Houstonian continued to require them for all employees, members, guests and vendors when not eating, drinking or exercising vigorously, for example in group exercise classes or on cardio machines with six feet of distance between them. Corpus Christi Athletic Club updated their mask policy from “mandatory” to “highly recommended,” and gently encouraged mask use at the front desk. Whenever a member checked in without a mask, they were asked politely by staff if they would like a complimentary mask.

“Everyone is pretty much wearing their mask where they cannot keep a six foot distance,” said Gorsline. “On the first day of the lifting restrictions only 9 out of over 1100 members who checked in that day refused to wear masks.”

4. How will you communicate with members and staff?

Communication should be consistent and clear, and conducted across diverse mediums (social media, email, onsite, etc.).

Corpus Christi Athletic Club met with their 21 managers to discuss their strategy and approach, and what to do with irate members. Gorsline said, “We then sent an all employee email informing staff of the Governors new mandate and effective date as well as how to politely handle asking the members if they would like a complimentary mask.”

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Gorsline also built in additional support for floor staff, scheduling a manager to be on the floor for the first week to show them support through this transitional period. “We also sent out an email to all members letting them know all safety protocols are still in place and we highly recommended all members to continue to wear their masks and social distance,” Gorsline said.

The Houstonian took a similar approach. Harris told IHRSA, “About a week before the mask mandate was lifted in Texas, we sent an email to membership regarding our decision to continue with all safety protocols. This information was also posted on social media and members shared this on their profiles to show support. This notice was posted on our member-only website and member app. There was increased signage posted in high-traffic areas such as, the fitness center, reminding members and guests of our protocols, specifically about facial coverings being required.”

According to the clubs IHRSA spoke to, while there was some pushback from members, the response was largely positive.

Harris said, “After announcing our decision to keep all protocols in place, we received an overwhelming positive response from our membership via social media, email and in-person. Members expressed gratitude for our decision and they shared how encouraging this was to continue coming into the Club.”

Harris advised her staff to make the member feel heard, and to help them understand why the protocols are in place. The leadership team will reach out directly to any member who is vocal with staff or is not complying with current protocols. Members who are uncomfortable wearing a face covering are advised of alternative fitness options like working out outdoors.

According to Cardone, more members appreciated the mask policy and expressed their desire for it to remain than objected. “Again, I feel we are battling a matter of consumer confidence and comfort. The improving statistics and expected herd immunity will make the polarization of opinions less defined. It is my hope that we will see that balance tip very soon,” he said.

5. What metrics will be used to inform decisions around rolling back safety protocols?

Throughout the pandemic, states have relied on a few key metrics to inform their phased progressions. Every club in every city and county may have a different situation, and can take a different approach. COVID Local, a joint project of the Global Biological Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative , the Center for Global Development, and the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, in collaboration with Talus Analytics, outlines key metrics to inform phased reopening for local decision-makers.

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Club operators can use some of these metrics to think through and benchmark decisions around phasing out protocols.

  • COVID-19 test positivity rate, or the percent of COVID-19 test results that return a positive result. A small percentage of positive test results indicates lower community spread. The WHO recommended a percent positivity rate under 5% before governments reopen, and according to COVID Local, ideally before returning to normal, the test positivity rate is 1% or lower.
  • Test capacity, or the ability of people who want a test to access one. COVID Local recommends returning to normal only when testing is widely available and most results turn around in 24 hours or less.
  • Healthcare readiness indicates the ability of the healthcare system to respond to an increase in cases. According to COVID Local at least 30% of ICU beds should be available to accommodate a potential surge, and healthcare workers have sufficient PPE.
  • Contact tracing and surveillance. Cases are traced and tested effectively and efficiently, and emergency response teams can respond to an outbreak within 24 hours.

Cardone said his club is watching a few key metrics, put out by their county school system and hospital system. If these metrics together continue trending in the right direction, the club will begin rolling back protocols.

  • Effective Reproduction Rate (R0), which represents the average number of people a contagious person infects and is a measure of disease spread. When R0 is less than 1, cases are falling.
  • Test Positivity Rate
  • Total number of positive tests within the region
  • Hospitalization and ICU rates

“My next targeted adjustment to our policies is April 5th. So far, we are encouraged by the trends of the first two weeks,” Cardone told IHRSA.

Active & Safe Lays the Foundation for Ongoing Protocols

The IHRSA Active & Safe Commitment provides a solid foundation for fitness centers as they adjust and adapt their safety protocols based on new information about COVID-19.

Related Articles & Publications

  • Vaccine Policy Considerations for Health Club Staff

  • Understanding Ventilation, COVID-19 Spread, & Your Gym

  • COVID-19 Relief & Information for the U.S. Fitness Industry

Author avatar

Alexandra Black Larcom

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.