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The Updated 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.

It is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 anywhere in society, including fitness centers. However, we have provided a framework for managing and minimizing 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), Johns 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 and remain open,
  • 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.

The Four-pronged Framework for Health Club Reopening was first released in May 2020, based on the best available epidemiological evidence. The new Four-pronged Framework has been updated to reflect new evidence.

You will see three key changes to the safety protocols:

  1. Given the widespread occurrence of asymptomatic COVID-19, some screening protocols including temperature checks and symptom questionnaires are less impactful than originally thought. It is still important to ensure members who come to the club have not been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person or someone who is quarantining, have not traveled to any restricted areas without testing negative, and are not currently awaiting a COVID-19 test result.
  2. Ventilation and airflow, as well as physical distancing, have taken on increased importance given the emerging evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted via airborne aerosols more than six feet away.
  3. Mask policies have also increased in importance, especially in areas with higher levels of community transmission. It may even be necessary to require members to exercise in their mask, depending on the regulations in place where you are located.

Additionally, IHRSA has launched the Active & Safe Commitment as a way to publicly commit to upholding the safety protocols outlined in the Four-pronged Framework. Learn more about the Active & Safe Commitment.

This new framework provides the best guidance to date on the protocols that will help your club open or remain open amid the pandemic.

Facility capacity limits

As clubs progress through phased reopenings, capacity limitations can reduce the spread of the virus. Capacity limits 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. However, greater distance may be required depending on the type of activity, room ventilation, and whether or not masks are required.

Many clubs have limited and continue 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.

As the pandemic continues, phased reopenings have moved forward and backward, and in many places clubs have reclosed, depending on COVID-19 cases in that area. Capacity limits may likely fluctuate over the next six to 12 months.

Equipment access

Rearrangement of cardio and strength equipment, and benches and racks in the free weight area will ensure adequate social distancing. Clubs have turned off, unplugged, or otherwise removed from operational use certain pieces of equipment to ensure appropriate social distance.

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

Masks and face coverings

As more evidence emerges that COVID-19 may be transmitted via small particles called aerosols that can travel further than 6 feet, masks continue to be a safe, effective method for helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. A number of clubs have policies in place requiring members and visitors to wear masks upon entering and exiting the club, and when moving throughout the club except during intense exercise. In some areas with high levels of community transmission, keeping the mask on at all times—even during exercise—has been encouraged or required.

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Class schedule and capacity

Class schedules should continue to be staggered to allow members/staff to properly disinfect equipment and class space. Class capacity and flow should be adjusted to ensure adequate social distancing, according to regional or local guidelines, between all participants and instructor, to be enforced by staff as appropriate. Given emerging evidence about airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, fitness centers may want to consider offering group exercise classes in highly ventilated areas such as indoor basketball courts or outdoors to maximize airflow. Group classes should also offer ample space for physical distancing.

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

With social distancing and cleaning requirements in place in these area(s), locker rooms have been able to reopen as allowed by state/local authorities. Saunas and steam rooms, given their size and humidity levels, may not be able to open for some time.

Swimming pools

With social distancing and cleaning requirements, pools have reopened where allowed by state/local authorities. Pool-based activities and classes should be staggered to enable physical distancing.

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

Communal areas

Staff in most clubs have reviewed the arrangement of communal areas and made adjustments to ensure the implementation of adequate safety measures. They also took steps to avoid close gathering/congregating. Some communal areas, such as cafes, may be closed depending on state or local regulations.

Customer services

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

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

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

Some clubs have offered child care as a solution for families facing extended remote learning and school closures.

Employee protective measures

Employees of the club should be informed about the latest available evidence and guidance regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, including transmission risk, current community spread, risk mitigation protocols, and best practices. Management and staff should be committed to following local, regional, and national guidelines.

Effective measures to promote employee safety can include:

  • Adequate 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, physical distancing protocols, and other safety measures.

Members’ responsibilities

All policies and protocols should be regularly and clearly communicated with members across a variety of mediums (social media, website, onsite signs, etc.) so they understand and actively participate in appropriate COVID-19 mitigation measures.

These measures can include:

  • Wiping down equipment before and after use,
  • Washing hands before, during, and after workouts, as needed,
  • Practicing physical distancing in all areas of the club, and
  • Wearing a mask or cloth face covering as desired or required.

Key health club interactions like instruction, coaching, and training can be allowed if members and staff observe physical distancing and the highest level of cleaning standards.

Reminder mechanisms

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

Extensive hygiene and sanitizing protocols

Personal cleaning products including hand sanitizer and alcohol-based rubs/gels, soap canisters, and closed bins for safe disposal of hygienic materials should be readily available to both members and staff.

A cleaning schedule should be established to ensure the facility is clean and hygienic. This can include wiping surfaces and any equipment regularly with disinfectant and ensuring cleaning procedures include disinfection of high touch surfaces in all areas several times per day.

All agents used for cleaning and/or disinfection should 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 should also 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.

Enhanced measures to optimize ventilation and filtration

The club should take steps to ensure that HVAC systems meet all local requirements and standards. Club professionals should consider taking additional measures to maintain safe humidity levels (40-60%), regular air exchange, ventilation, and purification.

Screening

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. However, people who are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 can still spread the disease. Moving forward, screening should focus on exposure risk: whether or not someone has had a close contact with a COVID-19 positive person or someone who is quarantining in the last 14 days, or has traveled to a restricted area (and if so, can they produce a negative test result).

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks. Health clubs are perfectly established to assist public health officials with contact tracing efforts, and should have training and procedures in place to identify, share, and communicate with anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 in their facility.

The Active & Safe Commitment

Health clubs following the Four-pronged Framework can signal their commitment to safety protocols by singing on to the Active & Safe Commitment.

The IHRSA Active & Safe Commitment is an initiative to reaffirm the health club industry’s unyielding dedication to safety. The commitment was developed by industry experts in accordance with the foremost public health guidance.

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Alexandra Black Larcom @ihrsagetactive

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you'll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.