A coalition of fitness center owners say they have the data to prove that their facilities don’t spread COVID-19 any more than retail stores and salons, and they’re taking their case public.
California currently allows gyms and fitness centers to operate outdoors, and a majority of state residents apparently agree with that policy.
Most people in the state favor allowing workout establishments to return to indoor operations, despite the threat of another surge in COVID-19 infections, provided they follow some strict guidelines.
Those were the findings of a recent study on California by David Binder Research in San Francisco, the results of which were released this month.
Binder conducted 800 online and telephone surveys with registered voters during a four-day stretch in January. The survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, was sponsored by Planet Fitness, the international chain of fitness centers.
Binder found that roughly 56 percent of all Californians support the state’s decision to place gyms and fitness centers in the state’s purple tier. That’s the most stringent category, but it does allow fitness centers and other workout locations to operate outdoors, like restaurants, wherever possible.
Tier assignments are assigned to each county in the state by the California Department of Public Health. They’re based on the number of positive tests in a county as well as the county’s adjusted case rate.
Only six counties are in the less-stringent red and orange tiers, the two below purple, and all of them are in Northern or Central California. A tier designation can be changed at any time if the department decides it must do so to stop an outbreak of the potentially fatal virus.
Binder found that nearly 70 percent of California residents believe the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 81 percent said the COVID-19 closures have impacted their personal fitness routine.
Also, 64 percent of all state residents believe it’s important to keep all businesses open in order to maintain jobs and the economy. Of that number, 45 percent said they hold that view strongly.
But perhaps most significant of all, Binder uncovered solid support for allowing gyms and fitness centers to operate indoors.
Sixty seven percent of those surveyed favored allowing fitness center to reopen under the California Safe Fitness Plan. Those are guidelines proposed by the Exercise is Essential For All Coalition, a group of fitness center owners asking for in immediate return to indoor operations.
The fitness plan would require those facilities to practice double-distancing – everyone must stay 12 feet apart instead of six feet – and restrict their occupancy to 10 percent. They would also be required to close overnight to deep clean all surfaces and equipment.
Finally, fitness centers would be required to clean their equipment every 20 minutes during operating hours, provide better-than-usual ventilation, shut down all showers and locker rooms and enforce all mask regulations.
If implemented, those regulations would be the toughest placed on fitness centers in the United States, according to the coalition.
Exercise is Essential is still soliciting support for the fitness plan on its website, www.execiseisessntial4all.com.
Another factor that could work in favor of the fitness center industry: those facilities may not be “super spreaders” of COVID-19, as many people, including some health officials, believe.
Contact tracing – carefully logging the name, contact information, date, and time for each visitor – in several states has show that fitness centers aren’t major spreaders of the virus. In New York, contact tracing found that fitness centers and gyms account for only 0.06 percent of community spread.
That’s lower than retail stores, salons, construction sites and automobile dealerships, said Bill Bode, Planet Fitness’ chief operations officer.
“California is the only state that doesn’t allow indoor fitness centers,” said Bode, who spoke during a virtual news conference held earlier this month by Exercise is Essential. “Other states have used a basic scientific approach to guide the reopening of fitness centers, and its has worked. The data shows that fitness centers are not spreaders of COVID-19.”
Few, if any, fitness centers can operate properly outdoors, especially in cold weather, said Jason Scott, online managing editor of Athletic Business, which covers the fitness industry.
“I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where it was minus 10 degrees today,” Scott said during a recent telephone interview. “There’s absolutely no way a gym could operate outside in this part of the country.”
The pandemic, now nearly one year old, has prompted some people to buy their own exercise equipment and work out at home, according to Scott.
“Not everyone can afford to do that, but some people can, and that could have an impact after all of this is over,” Scott said. “But to keep fitness centers closed because they might be spreaders of COVID-19 isn’t right because it isn’t true. Gyms are actually clean places. It’s always been standard gym etiquette to wipe down equipment after you’ve used it.”
Binder’s research may have uncovered more than a desire on the part of fitness aficionados to see their gym reopened, said Jay Prag, professor of business and economics at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.
“More than anything I think it shows frustration with the entire pandemic, which has been going on for nearly a year now,” Prag said. “People just want to go back to the way things were before, but that can’t happen. Too many jobs have been lost that are never coming back.”