Health Club Operators Create Alliances To Help With Reopening Efforts

(Screen capture.) Gale Landers, founder of Fitness Formula Clubs (top left) and Steven Schwartz, CEO of Midtown Athletic Clubs (bottom row) spoke to Club Industry Content Director Pamela Kufahl about the Illinois Fitness Alliance and reopening clubs in the state. Their alliance is just one of several forming in states not yet allowing gyms to reopen.

[Editors' Note: The first version of this article mistakenly identified Mark Bradley, owner and general manager of Fitness World of North Carolina in the Raleigh-Durham area, as the leader of the North Carolina alliance, Fitness Operators for Responsible Reopening. He is not the leader. Club Industry apologizes for the error.]

Gale Landers and Steven Schwartz are two of the biggest health club operators in the country. Landers founded Fitness Formula Clubs, which has 11 locations in the Chicago area. Schwartz is CEO of Midtown Athletic Clubs, which has seven clubs in the United States (four of those in the Chicago area) and one in Canada. It has another 25 clubs managed by its Midtown Health group.  

Some people might call the two men competitors, but they consider themselves collaborators and cooperators today. A lot of other health club operators are cooperating with them, too, as part of the Illinois Fitness Alliance, which Landers and Schwartz helped form in May. The group now claims about 50 to 60 facility operators in the state of Illinois as members. The goal of the group? Long-term, it is to use its voice for all fitness professionals in the state and to improve the health of people in Illinois, Landers said. But short term, it is to get health clubs in the state safely reopened after the temporary shutdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Watch the full interview in the video above or on Club Industry's YouTube channel.)

It’s not just health club operators in Illinois who are banding together for this purpose. California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania club owners also have created alliances, all with the purpose of helping to reopen fitness centers in their state sooner rather than later. This article recounts some of the efforts of the alliances in these four states. 

Illinois

Illinois, which has a four-phase reopening plan, began phase three on May 29 while the city of Chicago started phase three on June 3. Plans are for phase three to run 28 days. Gyms won’t be open in full until phase four, a phase that could be delayed if COVID-19 cases increase, particularly after the large number of people who gathered for multiple days to protest the death of George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of police.

In phase three, the only fitness facilities that can reopen are those open for one-on-one personal training and those open for outdoor training of groups no larger than 10 people as long as social distancing requirements are adhered to. Gyms may sell retail merchandise and do onsite filming or streaming of remote classes conducted by a single trainer.

The Executive Order for phase three states that gyms may not allow other activities, including member workouts, “because of the heightened risk of transmission of COVID-19 when people exercise together and share equipment in an indoor space.”

The Illinois Fitness Alliance is working to broaden the guidelines in phase three so that if COVID-19 cases spike and the city or state remains in phase three longer, gyms can reopen under the broader guidelines, Landers said.

But the fear factor is something the industry has to overcome, Schwartz said.

“Look, if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and it’s respiratory, and you’re on a treadmill expiring, it’s kind of logical to think that’s a potential problem,” Schwartz said. “And that is a medical fact and a political problem to oversee. People focus on the sweat and the touching, but when you really get down to it, it’s the respiratory transmission that’s a problem.”

Some politicians have a lack of trust of the industry that also needs to be overcome, Landers said.

“In general, there’s a core element of lack of trust within our industry and how politicians see our industry,” Landers said. “It’s a very fragmented industry so they’ve heard the horror stories, but many of them are members of our clubs, and they know that there are great clubs and great operators out there and that we’re incredibly community based and what we do is we bring communities together and we give a lot back to communities, both financially and non-financially.”

Landers noted that the fitness industry hasn’t had a strong voice of advocacy in front of politicians in Illinois.  

“We weren’t organized like the restaurant association, like the merchant’s association,” Landers said. “We didn’t have a voice at the table. So we’re doing that now, and we feel there’s going to be strength in numbers. It’s a long-term play.”

Schwartz agreed.

“As CEOs, we’ve all been entrepreneurial, we’ve all had to learn how to manage people, and the market and all that stuff,” Schwartz said. “The muscle that we’ve never exercised is the public policy muscle. We’ve never gone out and practiced talking to politicians as an industry and making ourselves relevant. … That’s a muscle we have to learn to work.”

The group has put together priorities about reopening and about relief for the industry. It also is working to activate members, contact aldermen and change the industry’s Standard Industry Classification code so that it’s no longer placed in the same code with casinos and resorts.

Landers said that change will take time.

“Steve and I will both tell you, you’ll probably run faster alone, as individuals, but we know we can get a heck of a lot farther if we pull everybody together and bike together as a group,” Landers said.

Operators of commercial clubs, studios, YMCAs, JCCs, university rec centers and other fitness facilities as well as suppliers in the industry who want to join the group, can do so by going to www.illinoisfitnessalliance.com.

Pennsylvania

In early May, Jim Worthington, owner of the Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pennsylvania, founded the Pennsylvania Fitness Alliance to engage health clubs in the state to create one voice to advocate for state and local legislation that affects the fitness industry. In the short term, the group’s goal is to get all health and fitness clubs in Pennsylvania to reopen as soon as possible, Linda Mitchell, director of public and government relations for Newtown Athletic Club, told Club Industry in an email. She is the administrator for the group, which has about 150 members comprised of health and fitness facilities of any size, recreation organizations, boutiques, equipment vendors, employees, members and more.

Members of the alliance have been meeting virtually every week since its inception. 

“Members of the group have reached out individually to their local and state lawmakers to present the CDC-approved safety guidelines for reopening of health clubs and to request reopening as soon as possible in the governor’s phased reopening plan for the state,” Mitchell said in the email.

The industry reopening guidelines were authored by Kate Golden, sanitation czar on the Newtown Athletic Club team. Information was gathered from fitness industry professionals across the nation as well as from Capital Health, which is Newtown’s medical wellness partner, with input from IHRSA public health experts. The guidelines were submitted to the CDC through the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, who Worthington knows through his position on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. The CDC reviewed and approved the guidelines, which have subsequently been shared with the industry and are being applied even at the global level, Mitchell said.

Members of the group have met with lawmakers from across the state in their individual districts, and Worthington has met with the executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the legislative affairs director for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. They have received the group’s guidelines for opening and its message that health clubs are ready to open following these guidelines.

In addition, the alliance launched a grassroots campaign to reach out to lawmakers and the governor generating thousands of messages from clubs and constituents across the state in support of the reopening of health clubs, Mitchell said.

The alliance has also supported some pieces of legislation that are now on the table to support its goals as well, such as a bill to open all health clubs now after the CDC-approved guidelines as well as a resolution to limit the governor’s powers to extend emergency closures beyond 30 days, according to Mitchell.

"The Pennsylvania Fitness Alliance has been an effective voice in a very short period of time advocating for the value of health and wellness to the residents of the commonwealth and for the professionalism with which they have approached the development of safety protocols to protect all residents,” Mitchell said. “The Alliance is very appreciative of the state and local lawmakers who understand the importance of our industry to the health of the commonwealth and who have been supportive of our cause." 

The Pennsylvania Fitness Alliance is working with IHRSA and IHRSA’s Public Policy Team headed by Helen Durkin with the assistance of Jeffrey Perkins, Mitchell said. IHRSA has also provided the services of the IHRSA Pennsylvania lobbyist, Dick Gmerek of Gmerek Government Relations Inc., to assist in the group’s advocacy. Mitchell said that IHRSA’s support has proven valuable in navigating these unsettled waters.

Mitchell recommended that clubs in every state consider forming a statewide alliance so that there can be an organized outreach on behalf of the industry at the state and local government levels.

“We firmly believe that our industry needs a bigger voice in government at all levels in order to protect the industry and that can only be done by creating strong relationships at the grassroots level with each of our lawmakers at every level of government,” Mitchell said. “These relationships will serve each club and the industry well when the necessity arises to communicate your needs to your representatives. The time to start building is now for the future.”

Mitchell noted that the group may have started due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its purpose extends beyond this crisis.

“We foresee that there will be legislative issues that arise at both the local and state level affecting our industry where our alliance will be most effective as a cohesive group, such as state tax issues or future contract issues that affect club operations,” she said. “To that end, we will continue to promote support of our group.”

Anyone interested in  learning more about the group and receiving ongoing communications about it can find out more by going to its website here.     

North Carolina

Health club operators in North Carolina initially thought they were going to reopen on May 22 as part of the state’s phase two reopening plan, but then gyms were taken off the list of businesses allowed to reopen.

A group of gym operators in North Carolina then formed the Fitness Operators for Responsible Reopening, proposing 14 steps for a safe reopening of fitness centers in the state. The group, includes clubs such as O2 Fitness, Planet Fitness, Orangetheory Fitness, Crunch Fitness and TruFit.   

One of the large commercial club operators in the state is taking a three-prong approach to getting business reopened in the state. The company’s plan is to attempt to cooperate with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to help educate them on the steps the fitness industry has undertaken and will undertake to keep members safe. The second prong was legislative, involving a bill that would allow gyms to reopen. The third prong—to take legal action—was being held in contingency to be used only if the first two failed.

It appears the legislative action has gotten the most traction, as both the North Carolina House and Senate passed a bill on June 10 to reopen gyms and bars and sent it to the governor for his signature. Cooper has 10 days to sign it or veto it. As of the morning of June 11, the governor had yet to sign the bill. He had vetoed an earlier bill that would have allowed bars to reopen. The new bill also includes gyms and would allow the governor to close the businesses again if he felt an uptick in cases warranted it, as long as he had approval from the Council of State, which is made up of legislators. The bill also allows local health directors to implement their own orders as they see necessary.

The bill would allow gyms to be open at 50 percent capacity as long as social distancing guidelines can be followed and as long as they have certain sanitizing practices in place.

North Carolina is in phase two of its Safer At Home plan, which runs through at least June 26.

In response to the bill’s passage, FORR released this statement: "As an industry, we are committed to the highest health and sanitation standards to provide our members the confidence needed to safely return to their workout routines. We thank Governor Roy Cooper for working with us to this point and encourage him to sign this solutions-oriented legislation for the physical and mental well-being of our communities."

California

The California Fitness Alliance was formed in April to help spread the word about the benefits of exercise and to get city, county and state officials to allow gyms to reopen after the temporary closures of businesses around the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group developed guidelines for gyms to safely reopen and sent those to city, county and state officials in May.

Recently, the governor gave approval for health clubs in the state to reopen pending adherence to state guidelines and approval by their county officials.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer announced on June 10 that the county will allow gyms to reopen on June 12. Businesses that can comply with the safety protocols that will be announced on June 11 may open the next day, she said.

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