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8 Key Steps for Health Clubs to Take When Shutdowns Loom

With the next wave of COVID-19 forcing world governments to consider shutdowns again, we've put together eight steps gyms can take to help keep their clubs open or reopen as soon as possible.

A third wave of COVID-19 is currently hitting Europe, North America, and much of South America. The United States is surpassing 100,000 new cases per day, and most of Europe is under strict stay-at-home advisories.

As the potential for new or more intensive restrictions looms, there are eight steps clubs can take to advocate for themselves and the industry to stay open—or reopen as soon as possible.

  1. Identify Key Decision Makers and Their Scope
  2. Gather Compelling Research Demonstrating Clubs Are Lower Risk Environments
  3. Stay on Top of the Latest Evidence and Make Sure it’s Accurate
  4. Determine the Best Vehicle and Strategy to Get Your Message Heard
  5. Don’t Tell—Show—That Clubs Are Safe
  6. Decide the Protocols You Will Implement to Keep Your Club Open
  7. Start Reaching Out to Local Health Authorities Now—Don't Assume Outreach is Hopeless
  8. Support Industry Efforts for Government Relief

1. Identify Key Decision Makers and Their Scope

Public officials can send mixed signals regarding who has the legal authority to shut down businesses for public health reasons. In an April press conference, President Trump said that health clubs are vital to the U.S. and should be included in Phase 1 of reopening. Unfortunately, unlike other countries where the national government holds the power to open and close clubs, in the U.S., these decisions fell to the state level.

Within each state, decision-making power may be made solely by the governor, a commission, or the head of the department of public health. Additionally, individual counties or municipalities can enact their own restrictions. In many other countries, the national government holds the power to make these decisions.

Some public officials recognize that another round of mass closures could destroy the economy, harm employees, and destroy businesses, so they are trying more targeted restrictions and closings.

In California, the county governments have exercised a lot of the decision-making power, leaving Los Angeles County closed while many other counties were open. In large metropolitan areas, city officials may make different decisions than the state, including what basis they will use to make an opening or reopening decision.

The Colorado Fitness Alliance (CFA) knew that the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) would be the ultimate decision-maker and base the decision on scientific evidence. This enabled them to advocate for themselves using the most compelling data and arguments, resulting in their ability to remain open.

Knowing what kind of information to provide isn't always enough. You need to figure out who is the best person to deliver it. After months and months of providing scientific evidence, New Jersey operators determined that good evidence alone wasn't enough. They needed medical professionals to deliver the evidence to lawmakers.

“We have been talking to stakeholders, and we do not feel this is one of the higher risk settings because people are wearing masks at the gym. Gyms are ensuring social distancing and also cleaning their equipment. So we are comfortable allowing it.”

Jill Ryan

Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment - Denver, CO

2. Gather Compelling Research Demonstrating Clubs Are Lower Risk Environments

After an ongoing communications campaign to ensure the decision-makers received a steady stream of the best evidence that clubs are safe, Jill Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), announced widespread closures to address the surge that exempted health clubs.

Ryan explained, "We have been talking to stakeholders, and we do not feel this is one of the higher risk settings because people are wearing masks at the gym. Gyms are ensuring social distancing and also cleaning their equipment. So we are comfortable allowing it."

The CFA worked closely with IHRSA to compile data, materials, and infographics. When CFA learned of the impending shutdown, they combined the best information and presented it to the state.

In Colorado's case, this data also included reminding Colorado officials that according to the state's contact tracing—gyms are low risk. In that state, only one outbreak has been associated with fitness centers since they reopened in June.

For the first time in months, India's health and fitness clubs can reopen their doors to the public. The United Health & Fitness Federation (UHFF), IHRSA's Indian national federation partner, used IHRSA resources to back their claims that gyms could be part of the solution and operate safely with consistent efforts to persuade the government.

You can access the latest research on health club safety and the importance of physical activity in the U.S. Data Memo and Global Data Memo.

3. Stay on Top of the Latest Evidence and Make Sure it’s Accurate

Research relating to COVID-19 is emerging faster than ever, and it can often be complex and hard to understand. News article headlines can be misleading or inaccurate, but policymakers will still cite them as justification for restrictions and closures.

This inaccurate use of studies regarding health and fitness facilities' safety has been a problem since the pandemic began. In the spring, many public health officials cited the study of a dance fitness instructor seminar in South Korea as the reason to delay or suspend the reopening of gyms and fitness facilities.

The problem was that the study had limited applicability since the spread occurred in a crowded dance study before the Korean Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) implemented any risk mitigation procedures that would make clubs safe.

These headlines have continued amid second and third waves in the U.S. In July, the CDC shared a case-control study that found no statistically significant association between a COVID-19 positive test and visiting a gym. Yet, news outlets used the study to finger bars, restaurants, and gyms as high risk.

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In the latest example, the headlines said, “Study pinpoints places, from gyms to restaurants, where people are at high risk of contracting COVID-19,” but this finding was based on computer modeling that assumed a return to full capacity, a situation that does not mirror reality. The findings of that study did indicate that gyms are less risky than many other indoor places studied, and concluded that capacity limits are an effective means to reduce transmission while mitigating economic harm.

We wish we could say that only the media are getting the implications of research wrong. But given the intense pressure and time constraints your public health and government officials are under, they may have only read the headlines and not the full report and therefore make decisions about your club's opening status on faulty information.

You can make sure your policymakers are well informed using several articles IHRSA has written explaining these studies in further detail and refuting the misleading headlines. You can find these on ihrsa.org and share them with your contacts.

4. Determine the Best Vehicle and Strategy to Get Your Message Heard

In Michigan, media was the key to getting clubs reopened. The message that clubs are vital and safe wasn't getting through to the governor. So the Michigan Fitness Club Association raised the volume by focusing on the press. They held a series of media events, including a boot camp on the lawn of the state Capitol—that got the governor's attention.

In New York—another state slow to reopen clubs—the New York State Fitness Alliance released statewide press releases. Operators in every region of the state coordinated outreach to the local media inviting them into the clubs. United and coordinated messaging of all segments of the industry throughout the entire state moved the needle.

Traditional media isn't the only way to get your message heard. Irish operators successfully used the online petition change.org to garner more than 50,000 signatures recognizing the industry and club's importance. The online activities and other efforts kept clubs open in Ireland long after pubs and restaurants were closed down. The same tactic has resulted in over 600,000 signatures on change.org in the U.K.

5. Don't Tell—Show—That Clubs Are Safe

Many public health, medical, and government officials, influencing the decision to keep clubs open, haven't been in a health and fitness facility in years or ever. The most important advice is to get decision-makers and public health people into your clubs to see all the risk mitigation measures in place. Before any clubs were open, U.K. Active invited public health officials to model clubs to demonstrate their safety.

The Maine Fitness Alliance felt they weren't getting anywhere until they brought decision-makers into the clubs to see safety measures for themselves. Like Maine, the Maryland Coalition of Health and Wellness Centers realized the people making the decisions regarding clubs were operating with an outdated narrative about what clubs looked like and how the employees behaved.

6.Decide the Protocols You Will Implement to Keep Your Club Open

There are several factors that influence the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community, including:

  • physical distancing,
  • airflow and ventilation,
  • face coverings, and
  • level of ongoing community spread.

In times of high community spread—as is happening in many areas in Europe and North America now—clubs may need to intensify other safety protocols. For example, implementing a more widespread mask policy, increasing physical distance, limiting capacity, or increasing ventilation so your club can maintain a safe environment and remain open.

With increasing infection rates, some government officials are looking to see what can be done to keep businesses, including health clubs, open. At a press conference in early November, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said, "If we don't ramp up the fight...we will have a serious problem on our hands in the not-too-distant future...Part of this is about messaging. We want you to go home. We don't think shutting down our economy is the right thing to do."

Gov. Baker issued a stay-at-home advisory for consumers that require businesses, including health clubs and fitness centers, to close between the hours 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. Face masks were also made mandatory in all public places, indoors or outdoors, even where people can maintain six feet of distance from others. Individuals are allowed to exercise without a mask as long as they maintain 14 feet of distance, but they must wear a mask at all other times. Gov. Baker's calculus is the same as what we are starting to see happening throughout the U.S.

The Illinois Fitness Alliance faced a similar shutdown risk in Chicago but avoided a total shutdown when they decided to impose a curfew rather than shut down business/clubs altogether. The California Fitness Alliance credits their willingness to accept and help adhere to mandatory mask requirements as to why clubs were allowed to stay open after the governor shut down bars and restaurants.

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Clubs have also reported that offers to assist public health officials in containing the spread have also helped keep those officials on their side. In Vermont, one club had several staff members complete a free contact tracing course provided by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to train club staff to effectively take on this role.

Knowing what protocols you can and will implement or intensify if needed can help you work with policymakers to keep your business open.

7. Start Reaching Out to Local Health Authorities Now–Don't Assume Outreach is Hopeless

Governments and health officials did not know enough about the spread of the virus during the first shutdown last spring. They kept citing an abundance of caution to justify closing schools, businesses, and clubs.

A lot has changed since March 2020. Thanks to the visit-to-virus data and others, even data from governments themselves show that clubs with proper mitigation measures are low risk. And some governments are starting to listen. As reported above, efforts to keep clubs open in Colorado and Massachusetts have been successful. But you can't be successful if you don't reach out to your state.

Reaching out to your local or state lawmakers can seem daunting on our own, but you’re not alone. Your state alliance may be able to help

One of the good things to come out of this crisis is club operators and suppliers developing state alliances to come together and share the work of getting—and keeping—clubs open. You can find a list of existing state alliances on IHRSA’s State Alliances page. If you live in a state with a state alliance and you're not involved yet, now is the time to get involved.

If your state doesn’t yet have an alliance, we also have resources to help you start one and advocate for your business.

8. Support Industry Efforts for Government Relief

It is easier to get government relief in some countries than in others. In Russia, the government prohibited clubs from laying off workers or only allowed layoffs with significant advanced notices. Clubs did not receive any financial assistance from the Russian government, whereas in some recent shutdowns, European governments subsidized large portions of employees' salaries.

In the U.S., some clubs were able to take advantage of the PPP program and get financial assistance. But since the earliest days of the pandemic, Washington D.C. has been caught up in politics and unable to pass any legislation to help businesses.

In the U.S., Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick and Mike Quigley have worked with IHRSA to introduce the Health and Fitness Recovery Act to establish a Health Club Recovery Fund. The fund would provide structured relief to health and fitness service establishments that have been uniquely hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you, your employees, and even your members have not asked your member of Congress to sponsor this bill, please do so now. It's easy to take action. Operators can take action here. Employees can take action here, and share this consumer version with your members.

Author avatar

Helen Durkin @HADIHRSA

Helen Durkin, JD, is the Executive Vice President of Public Policy for IHRSA. She is a champion of the health club industry and a committed advocate for physical activity, primary prevention, and public policies that promote wellness because it will take more than personal responsibility to get the world active. Helen lives to ski, dreams of knitting nirvana, is a mom, wife and springer spaniel owner.