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The New Normal: Operating Your Health Club During a Pandemic

Fitness industry expert on standards, Paul Eigenmann, sat down with us to discuss how clubs can operate most effectively during and after a global outbreak.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the health and fitness industry in countless ways. Government closures of fitness facilities, mask mandates, and strict social distancing requirements—to name a few—have dramatically changed the way the world’s health clubs operate.

So, how can health clubs and gyms operate their businesses most effectively in this new world? Paul Eigenmann, an expert on fitness industry safety standards, shares what your club can do to best serve your members in this new normal.

Eigenmann is an industry expert on standards and a former CEN (European Committee for Standardization) convenor who led the working group responsible for the development of the CEN standards throughout most of the process.

3 Considerations Club Operators Need to Focus on When Reopening

When considering how best to operate a health club during—and after—the COVID-19 pandemic, Eigenmann highlighted three crucial considerations for club operators:

  1. Emphasizing the importance of physical activity,
  2. Taking every safety measure, and
  3. Stressing contact tracing.

First, clubs must focus on the importance of physical activity for a healthy immune system. Health clubs play a vital preventative role in the health of the public, which is even more important in light of the pandemic.

Second, clubs must take every step to ensure that their members feel safe upon returning to the club and have the utmost confidence in their club to create a clean environment for them to use. Clubs must approach this task from all angles, from employee training on safety and cleaning procedures to educating members on best practices while in the club to ensure everyone’s safety.

Finally, Eigenmann stressed the importance of contact tracing in health clubs. “Contact tracing will be one of the most important things to avoid a second wave, and if we cannot avoid a second wave, this industry is gone,” he says. With membership records and check-in desks, health clubs have a unique position to employ a robust contact tracing system.

How to Give Your Members Confidence in Returning

One of the biggest challenges facing health club operators who are reopening amidst the pandemic is ensuring that once the club is allowed to open, members come back in large enough numbers to sustain the business.

Eigenmann recommends that club operators focus their efforts on the more casual members, who are more likely to have concerns with returning to the club. “Don’t worry about the enthusiasts; they will come when you reopen,” he says. “Do everything for those hesitant to come back by demonstrating cleanliness, disinfectants, etc. to make them feel safe.”

He also highlighted the importance of catering to vulnerable populations. For example, Eigenmann suggests blocking off specific times to provide those most susceptible to COVID-19 with an opportunity to use the facilities with fewer people in the club and therefore, less risk.

How to Best Prepare Employees & Members

Health club employees will play a vital role in operating a club during the pandemic. Employees practicing the proper safety and cleaning procedures will ensure that your members feel more comfortable being in the club. Employees will also set the example for your members of how they should behave.

Eigenmann recommends that clubs have employees follow the same rules as members such as mask-wearing, practicing distancing, and disinfecting any touched objects. “Employees should do all of these things in an almost exaggerated way,” he says.

Whenever possible, employees should be washing their hands or disinfecting equipment in front of members. When members see employees following these practices, not only are they put at ease, but they are also more likely to develop these practices themselves.

In terms of how clubs can best involve their members in the cleaning process, Eigenmann suggested allowing members to disinfect equipment themselves. While employees must also be consistently disinfecting, allowing members to take some of the responsibility has the benefit of both reassuring the member that the piece of equipment is clean and taking a bit of the burden off employees. Members should be used to cleaning equipment after using it anyway, so encouraging members to clean before use is not a difficult ask.

How to Create Policies When Information is Continually Changing

One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with the pandemic is the constantly changing flow of information.

While scientists and government officials are doing their best, the pandemic began with almost no information on the virus, and we have had to figure out many things as we go along. This fact has caused the flow of information to change from day to day, which makes implementing policies in your club incredibly tricky.

Eigenmann advised keeping two things in mind when attempting to create policies in these volatile times.

  1. Be willing to adapt, and
  2. Be upfront when communicating.

Eigenmann says, “Whatever we do know now, we have to be willing to change it.” As frustrating as it may be to keep up with the ever-changing rules and best practices, clubs must adapt. The club constantly working to align its policies with the latest science will be much better off than clubs that don’t adapt and get left behind.

He also stressed the importance of being upfront when communicating these changes to members. They are likely to be even more confused than you are when trying to keep up with the latest changes. Frequent, clear communication is more critical than ever before to ensure your members are comfortable and safe when using the club.

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What Clubs Should Do to Prepare for the Future

Even though most clubs are currently operating in crisis mode, it is critical to consider how your club will operate beyond the current pandemic.

Eigenmann pointed out that we should not expect life to get back to normal any time soon. “Social distancing will be with us for a long time. By a long time, I mean, until we have reached herd immunity—either because we have a vaccine or because everybody has caught COVID-19 and has antibodies that will stay with us for a long time—clubs will not be able to return to a normal operational model.”

“Today’s pandemic will be followed by more pandemics; there is no doubt,” he says. “So let's get ready for the next one. Not only in how we operate the clubs but ... also to get people physically ready for the next one.”

The health and immune system benefits of exercise are an inarguable fact. Clubs can play a critical role in mitigating the damage done by the next pandemic by striving toward creating a healthier population.

For more information on club operation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Coronavirus Resources for Health Clubs.

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Author avatar

Jake Landry

Jake Landry is the Public Policy Assistant for IHRSA. His primary responsibilities include monitoring legislation that affects the health club industry at the state and federal level and writing legislative alerts and articles on issues that affect IHRSA members. While not in the office, Jake enjoys soccer–both playing and watching–especially his beloved Liverpool F.C.