The Four-pronged Framework to Health Club Reopening

We’ve provided a framework to help clubs around the world manage risks associated with COVID-19 in exercise facilities.

As economies move forward with different phases of reopening, and as fitness centers plan for their reopening, member safety is top of mind. While we cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 in fitness centers—or anywhere in society—we’re providing a framework for managing risks associated with COVID-19 in exercise facilities. This framework was created with reference to the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), John Hopkins Center for Health Security, as well as in consultations with club operators and federations partners worldwide.

The framework was designed with the following goals in mind:

  • mitigating risk and enabling health and fitness clubs to reopen,
  • providing a safe and supportive place for physical activity, and
  • pursuing mental health and physical well-being.

Fitness centers play an important role in helping people stay active, and improve their physical and mental health and well-being. As the world continues to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, as well as its associated social isolation, stress, anxiety, and economic impacts, we need physical activity more than ever.

This article outlines the four-pronged framework clubs can implement as part of their reopening plans to mitigate risk, and highlights examples of safety strategies from clubs around the world.


Most health authorities strongly encourage people exhibiting signs of illness or cold/flu-like symptoms—e.g. cough, runny nose, fever—to stay home and avoid being around other people.

Clubs will implement a range of policies and procedures to ensure staff and members/customers are symptom-free, and at low risk for previous exposure to COVID-19.

According to guidelines created by the Newtown Athletic Club (NAC), based in Newtown, PA, working with IHRSA and reviewed by the CDC and Surgeon General’s Office, individuals who exhibit signs of illness, such as a fever over 100.4° Fahrenheit, cough, or shortness of breath will be asked not to enter the facility and to seek medical attention. NAC plans to use touchless thermometers to screen individuals prior to entering their facility.

Pure Group, a club chain based in China, also performed temperature screenings when their Shanghai clubs began reopening earlier this year, according to CEO Colin Grant during an April webinar.

Facility capacity limits

As clubs reopen, capacity will be limited to reduce the spread of the virus, per local and national health authority, and WHO advice. Capacity limitations will vary depending on the facility type and size, and areas within the facility that are open to members. All persons in the club (staff and members) should be able to maintain adequate social distance. The WHO recommends a distance of at least 3 feet or 1 meter. The CDC recommends a minimum of 6 feet or 2 meters.

Many clubs plan to limit capacity based on regional, state/province, or local guidelines and maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet or 2 meters throughout the club as broadly recommended by international health authorities.

Sports Academy, based in Utah, will require all persons to enter through the front main doors to maintain a total headcount. Basic Fit’s plan notes that “a distance of at least 1.5 meters significantly reduces the risk of contamination. Fitness clubs… can limit capacity to a certain maximum number of visitors. This is checked by the employees on site, by the member management system and by a smart camera system for those clubs that have it.”

At Pure Group, based in Hong Kong, staff divided the gym into clear zones with certain capacities. Close contact was not allowed, and there was no contact between personal trainers and clients, and no adjustments in yoga. When Pure Group’s clubs in Shanghai reopened, they were allowed to have about 50 people in the building at a time based on the size of the club. Members had to book by appointment, with 90 minutes slots. Personal training was allowed, but everybody had to wear a mask.

Equipment access

Rearrangement of cardio and strength equipment and benches and racks in the free weight area will ensure adequate social distancing. Clubs will turn off, un-plug, or otherwise remove from operational use certain pieces of equipment to ensure appropriate social distance.

Additionally, visitors will be encouraged to practice social distancing, including avoidance of “working in” with others or otherwise sharing equipment. Members will be encouraged to time retrieval of closely arranged equipment such as dumbbells or medicine balls to avoid close contact with others.

Little Rock Athletic Club will take at least 50% of cardio equipment out of service to provide spacing between pieces. According to a plan put together by Genavix/Executive Health in collaboration with New Hampshire health clubs and approved by the state, gyms will rearrange equipment as needed to keep more than 6 feet between machines and workout areas.

Dedham Health and Athletic Complex, based in Dedham, MA, will cordon off some cardio equipment, and will have clearly marked footprints instructing members exactly where to stand while exercising to promote social distancing.

Class schedule and capacity

Class schedules will be staggered to allow members/staff to properly disinfect equipment and class space. Class capacity and flow will be adjusted to ensure adequate social distancing between all participants and instructor, to be enforced by staff as appropriate.

Little Rock Athletic Club proposes a fitness class limit of 10 (one instructor and nine members), while Sports Academy reopened without onsite group classes, choosing to offer them exclusively online.

Both Newtown Athletic Club and Dedham Health and Athletic Complex’s plans include reopening with group exercise, limiting capacity through reservations and marking the floor to ensure proper social distancing.

At the NAC, class schedules will be created with a 30-minute break in-between each class to allow for exit, cleaning protocols, and a safe entry for the next class to eliminate congregation before and after classes. Instructors will direct members to gather equipment and return equipment one by one to avoid grouping near the equipment storage space. Instructors will also enforce guidelines in each space to ensure proper cleaning.

Coronavirus empty treadmill freepik stock column

Locker rooms, showers, saunas, steam rooms, and other thermal rooms

If social distancing and cleaning requirements can be satisfied in the area(s), they may reopen as allowed by state/local authorities.

Swimming pools

If social distancing and cleaning requirements can be satisfied, pools may reopen where allowed by state/local authorities. Pool-based activities and classes will be staggered to enable social distancing.

Proper pool maintenance is key to a safe reopening for clubs.

Little Rock Athletic Club will keep their locker rooms open, but have only every fourth locker in use. They have also closed their pools and other “wet” areas, such as saunas for the initial opening.

Newtown Athletic Club plans to keep their locker room open with an attendant available to clean and monitor the area during club operating hours. Others like Sports Academy plan to keep locker rooms closed early on, with no changing or showering allowed.

In a plan put together by Louisiana fitness centers, including Stone Creek Club & Spa, Franco’s Health Club, Cross Gates Family Fitness, and Pelican Athletic Club and approved by state health officials, gyms will close their sauna, steam room, and hot tub but will open their pool for lap swimming with one person per lane.

Communal areas

Staff is to review the arrangement of communal areas and make adjustments to ensure the implementation of adequate safety measures. They will also take steps to avoid close gathering/congregating. Some communal areas, such as cafes, may be closed depending on state or local regulations.

In the Louisiana clubs’ plan, “furniture throughout facilities (indoors and outdoors) will be spaced to allow for proper social distancing, or will be put out of order, or will be labeled with signage stating for everyone to adhere to social distancing requirements.” The club will also place hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes throughout the facility for staff and employees. In addition, “walkways and hallways will be marked with directional signage so that social distancing can be achieved.”

Several clubs, including Newtown Athletic Club and gyms in Louisiana, will also remove water fountain capability and offer water bottle refill stations.

Customer services

Clubs will take steps to limit close personal interactions with staff, including implementing contactless payments for services or retail, reservations, and check-in.

The the plan for fitness centers in New Hampshire outlined several measures to keep customer interactions as safe as possible during check in, including:

  • Plexiglass protective shields for service desks as needed.
  • Check-in processes should involve non-touch self-scan cards or other automated systems that do not require close contact between individuals nor handling of an
    individual’s keys, cards, etc., by staff members.
  • Avoid congregating in entry areas. Develop a process to avoid congregating in entry
  • People should arrive to the facility wearing a cloth face covering as discussed above
    in the general guidance.
  • A process should be developed to monitor building capacity and limit entry into the
    facility and workout areas when that capacity has been reached.

Newtown Athletic Club is also adding plexiglass protective shields to service desks as needed.

Other areas in the club, such as spa facilities, salons, catering, and child care

Opening other areas of the club will be evaluated on the ability to put procedures or safeguards in place to minimize the spread of disease and will follow state and local guidelines.

Sports Academy will make daycare available by reservation only during regular Kids Klub hours, with a limit of 20 total children on two levels. Parents with sick children will be asked to take their child home.

Dedham Health and Athletic Complex will keep a number of areas closed during phase 1, including the rock gym, massage, family locker rooms, group lessons, and personal training. For kids spaces, they will follow state guidelines.

Employee protective measures

Employee safety is a top priority. Effective measures can include:

  • personal protective equipment—e.g., masks, face covers, and gloves,
  • limiting opportunities to congregate during check-ins or breaks,
  • staggering schedules, and
  • providing training in cleaning and disinfecting solutions.

These steps ensure both effective cleaning and employee safety.

The plan for clubs in New Hampshire outlines key employee protection policies in their reopening plan, such as:

  • Staff must be provided education and training around safe practices as it relates to hygiene, cloth face covering use, social distancing, sanitation (cleaning and disinfection policies), and illness policies outlined in the Universal Guidelines and in this document.
  • Staff must stay at least 6 feet apart from other staff and members at all times.
  • Require all staff to report any symptoms of COVID-19 or close contact to a person
    with COVID-19 to a supervisor. Staff and members should not be present in the
    facility if they feel sick.
  • Staff should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms or potential exposure on arrival.

Dedham Health and Athletic Club outlined extensive staff training in their reopening plan, including information about COVID-19, how to spot symptoms, cleaning procedures, and more.

Members’ responsibilities

Members will be encouraged to practice good gym hygiene, including:

  • wiping down equipment before and after use,
  • washing hands before, during, and after workouts, as needed,
  • practicing social distancing in all areas of the club, and
  • using protective equipment as desired or required.

Instruction, coaching, and training can be allowed if members and staff observe social distancing and the highest level of cleaning standards.

Reminder mechanisms

Visual aids—e.g., posters, floor markings, etc.—will be on display, informing and reminding customers and staff of social distancing and cleaning protocols throughout the facility.

The Louisiana clubs’ plan calls for signage at entry points to the facility advising members to practice social distancing, avoid entering if they have a fever or are experiencing any signs of illness, wash hands frequently following the CDC’s recommended guidelines, and clean all equipment before and after use.

At NAC, employees will be staffed all hours of operation to enforce guidelines in each space. Members who do not comply after one warning will be asked to leave the facility. For group exercise, members are required to clean all equipment and weights used in class with sanitation wipes provided. Members should bring their own mat for each visit.

The facility will post clear cleaning procedures for member reference throughout the club.

Club staff will be mobilized to clean frequently and thoroughly throughout the club.

All agents used for cleaning and/or disinfection will be approved by management and recommended by the WHO, or national/state/provincial health department and registered as appropriate with the national/state/provincial regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S.

Clubs are to provide disinfectant stations in all key areas throughout the club, including the entrance/exit, reception/front desk, studios, the fitness floor, in cardio areas, swimming pools, spa, locker rooms, and catering.

For example, Dedham Health and Athletic Complex’ plan includes:

  • Every employee is required to contribute to routinely disinfecting high-traffic surfaces. Your manager will give you specific details.
  • When cleaning surfaces, wear gloves and a mask and immediately after safely remove and dispose of used gloves—NEVER REUSE GLOVES.
  • Dedham Health is using EPA approved disinfectants with claims against emerging viral pathogens and are expected to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 based on data for harder to kill viruses. We have procured an ample supply of products needed to safely operate the club for the long-term.

We hope you find this useful as you craft your reopening plans and protocols. For more examples of what other clubs are doing, see What Safety Procedures Health Clubs Are Using to Reopen?

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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.