How Are Health Clubs Handling Mask Mandates?

Governments around the globe are mandating the use of masks in public places, causing uncertainty for health clubs. Here's what we know about face covering requirements and the best path forward for your health club.

As nations around the globe reopen their economies amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, more mask requirements are being implemented. In certain areas, notably the United States, mask mandates are a contentious issue. Yet with the increase in government mask mandates and reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) that masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus, it seems like masks will be a fixture of the new normal.

Where are masks mandated?

While mask requirements differ across the world, the general trend has seen national governments increasingly mandate that masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible. In England, new rules which took effect on July 24 make masks mandatory inside shops and businesses. While in France, everyone is required to wear face coverings in all public enclosed spaces as of July 20. Countries like Vietnam, Venezuela, and the Czech Republic require individuals to wear masks anytime they are outside their homes.

In the United States, there is no nationwide mask mandate. However, as of the end of July, over 30 states have a mask requirement when social distancing is not possible, with many other states at least recommending the use of masks in public, with the federal government’s encouragement. Additionally, large businesses such as Walmart and Kroger supermarkets have mandated the wearing of masks in their stores across the United States. In the health club industry, Planet Fitness and Lifetime Fitness mandate wearing masks in all their club locations.

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Are people required to wear a mask while exercising?

One of the most discussed issues around masks is whether they are necessary while exercising. The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering “when physical distancing is difficult and when exercise type and intensity allows. Consider doing any vigorous-intensity exercise outside when possible and stay at least 6 feet away from other participants, trainers, and clients if unable to wear a face covering.”

The WHO recommends that people not wear a mask while exercising “as masks may reduce the ability to breathe comfortably. Sweat can make the mask become wet more quickly which makes it difficult to breathe and promotes the growth of microorganisms. The important preventive measure during exercise is to maintain physical distance of at least one meter from others.”

It is important to note that these are just recommendations. Local, state, and national mask orders have the final say.

In the United States, even in states where masks are required, there are differences in whether they are required while exercising. In Massachusetts, everyone is required to wear a mask while in public and social distancing is not possible. Although health clubs recommend masks, the state mandate allows for indoor exercise without masks if social distancing increases to 14 feet.

In Texas, all individuals are required to wear a mask (even while exercising) when maintaining 6 feet of separation is not possible. Finally, in Colorado, the mandate is more general: Any time someone is exercising indoors in the presence of others, all customers must wear masks.

How are clubs around the world dealing with mask wearing?

Mask mandates around the world differ on whether they are required when exercising. For example in Vietnam and parts of China, masks were required at all times when exercising indoors during the height of outbreaks. (Now, these mandates are relaxed, and masks are optional during exercise in Vietnam and cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen in China.) However, in Portugal, Russia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, masks are required when entering health clubs or in social areas, but are not explicitly required while exercising as long as social distancing is maintained. Many clubs in countries where mask mandates have been relaxed or are not particularly strict still require employees to wear a mask at all times.

Currently, the Australian government does not recommend the general public wear masks when outside their home, but they are issuing mask mandates on a regional basis. For example, the state of Victoria recently directed all people to wear a mask when leaving their home. This requirement does not impact clubs in the region as they are closed under a partial lockdown. Generally, clubs that are open in Australia do not require members to wear masks but do have staff wearing masks in order to protect their customers.

New Zealand has no mandates or even recommendations for mask-wearing due to its incredibly low number of cases and community transmission rates.

How should my club enforce mask requirements?

One of the most difficult questions health club owners face is how to enforce these mask mandates. Particularly in the United States, the politicization of mask-wearing has resulted in viral videos of customers raging against store employees when confronted over their decision not to wear a mask. The incredibly charged nature of the topic makes it very hard for club owners to decide how to enforce mask requirements, but there are steps that owners can take to enforce mask policies safely.

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One important thing to remember is that communication with members is key. Whether it’s the government or the club that has decided to mandate masks, clearly communicating to members when they are required to wear masks can prevent future headaches. To ensure everyone is on the same page:

  • Post signs throughout the club, or
  • Send out an email to all members notifying them of mask requirements and for what situations they are necessary.
  • Post about the club’s mask policy on social media
  • Update the club’s website to include information on masks

Another tool to enforce mask requirements effectively is through properly training employees. If employees receive education on either the government order or internal policies on masks, they will be better able to act as an example for customers on proper mask usage. They will also have more information and reason to confront customers who are violating the mask requirement.

What if a customer refuses to wear a mask?

Despite the growing number of mask mandates around the world, they are still a fairly divisive issue with some individuals regarding mask mandates as an infringement upon their civil liberties.

The most important consideration when it comes to masks is the national, state, and local mask mandates. If the government requires masks whenever social distancing is not possible, including during exercise, all customers must be wearing masks, or it could have negative consequences for the club.

If a customer is only refusing to wear a legally mandated mask over philosophical objections, clubs are allowed to refuse them service. In those cases, clubs are legally allowed to refuse service to anyone for not wearing a mask, provided that they are not exempt due to a disability.

If the customer is exempt because of a disability, they may need reasonable accommodation, depending on the country’s disability laws. IHRSA further discussed the legal implications of disability exemptions for masks in a past article.

What are some alternative solutions to mask mandates?

Ultimately, the wearing of masks acts as another line of defense alongside social distancing and handwashing in order to protect ourselves from spreading or contracting COVID-19. However, they can make exercising more difficult, especially for people with difficulty breathing. In light of this fact, there are some creative solutions that clubs are turning toward to serve the most customers while ensuring their safety.

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Depending on the local mask mandate’s wording, different solutions can be possible. For example, once their clubs were allowed to reopen in China, MegaFit Xiian:

  • instituted a cap on how many members can enter a facility,
  • implemented a reservation system,
  • and employed a QR code scan and temperature check of all customers upon entry to identify their health status.

The clubs did not have to mandate masks by ensuring that anyone who entered their facility was free of infection.

Another example is Massachusetts’ recently updated guidelines: customers are allowed to work out without masks as long as there are physical dividers between them. While creating physical divisions between every piece of cardio equipment may not be feasible, separating a few machines specifically for those who are unable to exercise in a mask would allow clubs to accommodate their members while still abiding by the government order.

For more information on how masks impact the fitness industry, check out Coronavirus Resources for Health Clubs.

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Author avatar

Jake Landry

Jake Landry previously served as IHRSA's Public Policy Assistant—a position that focused on monitoring legislation that affects the health club industry at the state and federal levels and writing legislative alerts and articles on issues that affect IHRSA members.