How to Protect Your Members and Your Fitness Business During the Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19, better known as the new coronavirus, had been officially reclassified from an infectious disease outbreak to a worldwide pandemic, according to a March 11 announcement from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The symptomatically flu-like virus has affected every continent but Antarctica since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. As of 6 p.m. EST on March 11, there were approximately 126,000 confirmed cases and 4,600 related deaths globally. That includes 1,300 cases and 37 deaths in the United States. 

The full extent of the virus's economic impact globally and within the United States is not yet clear. However, its day-to-day influence is palpable in the form of event cancellations, school closures and evolving public health warnings. Many industries are feeling its effects, especially the fitness industry, whose businesses revolve around sweat and tight-knit communities.

Many health club operators have undoubtedly been asked difficult questions in recent weeks by both members and employees.

“Is it safe to come into the club?”

“What are you doing to sanitize the club?”

“What should I do if I feel sick?”

At the same time, club operators are asking their own questions.

“Will I lose my members?”

“Will I lose revenue?”

“How do I make my members feel safe?”

The good news about coronavirus—despite its new pandemic label—is that it can be suppressed and controlled unlike any disease before it, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a March 11 statement. To do so only requires a marriage of resources and resolve, he said—which, for club operators, can come in many forms.

Understanding Your Insurance Coverage

It is important to remember that viruses are excluded from standard commercial general liability insurance policies, according to Jennifer Urmston Lowe, national accounts manager for Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp., Madison, Mississippi. This means that members cannot receive settlement payouts for claiming they contracted a virus at their club.

It is very difficult to track where a virus comes from, so it would be difficult to prove that someone caught a cold or the flu or the coronavirus from their gym,” Urmston Lowe told Club Industry. “However, a fitness facility should still focus on cleanliness at all times to ensure their facility is safe from germs year-round.”

Viruses are also not a covered cause of loss under a standard commercial property insurance policy, she said. Therefore, a club will not necessarily be eligible for business income-related insurance coverage even if that club experiences reduced business because members are fearful of contracting a virus. Policies must stipulate covered causes of loss in order to trigger business income coverage, which then replaces losses sustained during a fixed period of restoration.

Specially written non-damage business interruption insurance policies can provide coverage for negative events that are more acute in nature, according to Nir Kossovsky, CEO and director of Pittsburgh-based Steel City Re, a firm that specializes in corporate reputation measurement and risk transfer. These events could include cyberattacks, software errors or supply chain issues. However, these policies are not widely offered and require great attention to fine print.

"It doesn't really matter what your insurance policies say or don’t say,” Kossovsky, who is also a former practicing medical doctor, told Club Industry. “The issue is liability, not insurance. Liability is your problem. Insurance just kind of helps you with your problem, but it's still your problem. And your problem often manifests in a court of law where there's an allegation of liability and someone is seeking to extract financial compensation for an injury. Insurance's job is only to try and soften that blow."

Kossovsky said that liability and culpability are often confused for one another. Culpability is a third party’s belief that you should have done something but didn’t. Conversely, liability is a third party’s belief that you owe them for being at fault.

“Culpability is linked to reputation,” Kossovsky said. “And the anger associated with culpability can last a long time. 'You could have, you should have and I'm not coming here again.' Liability usually ends up in court. 'I was hurt, you owe me something and I’m going to try and collect.'

Setting a New Standard for Cleanliness

Managing risk is often preferable to transferring risk, which is what a club operator does when they sign an insurance policy, Kossovsky said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the goal of club operators is to manage the risk of an infectious disease. Although this task may seem daunting, it’s primarily a question of resources and resolve, as Ghebreyesus said in his March 11 statement.

First, club operators must meet with their business’s governing body, which may include investors, owners, managers and other stakeholders. Kossovsky recommends this body outline expectations for management, allocate additional resources if needed (such as cleaning supplies) and implement incentives (such as paid bonuses) to motivate all club employees to help manage the risk at hand.

Managing expectations is often the key to protecting one’s reputation. To this end, Kossovsky suggests seeking legal counsel to update all club waiver forms.

"Give members an appropriate notice that you cannot guarantee their safety in an environment where there is inherent risk,” he said. “Anybody who uses a health club has to sign some sort of waiver acknowledging that there is inherent risk in using the equipment. Well, today, there is inherent risk in being next to somebody. Period. And the gym is covered with surfaces that can sustain this virus. In a moist environment, which gyms tend to be, viruses will last longer—in a steam room, sauna or bathroom.”

It’s not enough to simply clean your club more often, Kossovsky said. You must ensure your members see and understand your efforts. Double down on common sense and common courtesies. Consider issuing new surveys that solicit member feedback regarding cleanliness, and then act on the feedback.

“Have extra crew with special uniforms who say, 'Hi, we're the special cleaning crew that is here specifically to make this place safer for you,’” he said. "You can’t guarantee safety, but you can do everything in your power to make things safer. If someone gets a bug, odds are they got it from somewhere else. Not here. This environment is cleaner than your average environment. This is going to be the standard in a court of law.”

Staff members at The Claremont Club, Claremont, California, are not only thoroughly sanitizing their club; they're providing members with evidence. A March 4 video posted to the club's Facebook page shows an employee using a specialized EvaClean Protexus Cordless Electrostatic Sprayer to disinfect each of the club's door handles. This high-end disinfecting device claims to clean surfaces three times faster and more effective than traditional methods. Plus, it’s touchless. No towels or wiping required.

The staff at Club Greenwood, Greenwood Village, Colorado, issued a letter to all members reassuring them that they are actively monitoring the coronavirus and carefully cleaning all areas of the club. Additionally, the letter includes a list of best health practices that members can adopt to keep themselves and fellow members safe. These practices include avoiding the club when sick, covering coughs with tissues or sleeves, regularly handwashing for at least 20 seconds and disinfecting equipment after each use. The letter explains where to find hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes throughout the club, as well as how to greet, acknowledge and even help fellow members and trainers without bodily contact.

Similarly, Gainesville Health & Fitness, Gainesville, Florida, issued a March 10 memo to members that, instead of avoiding the topic, addressed coronavirus-related concerns head-on. The memo explained that Gainesville staff members have placed twice as many hand-sanitizing stations around the club and have also increased the number of manual chemistry checks they’re performing in all aquatics areas, even specifying their goal of maintaining a free chlorine level of 1.0 parts per million to prevent waterborne illnesses, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Educating Yourself and Others

While many club companies are elevating their sanitation practices, equipment and technology vendors can also educate the industry from their respective positions of expertise.

Sanitation solutions company Citron Hygiene, Markham, Ontario, Canada, recently hosted a webinar about the coronavirus and emailed a follow-up PDF to all registrants.

The PDF includes a wide array of information about the virus, as detailed below.

  • The coronavirus is primarily transmitted via exhaled respiratory droplets. In most cases, this happens through coughing and sneezing. These droplets can travel up to six feet and are more commonly passed from person to person versus surface to person. (Although, it is wise to regularly wipe down any commonly used objects and surfaces.)
  • Coronavirus symptoms include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, pneumonia and kidney failure.
  • If you believe you are infected, separate yourself from other people and animals. If possible, remain in an isolated room and use an isolated bathroom. Only leave home to seek medical care, and avoid public transportation if possible. Contact your medical center in advance so they can prepare for your arrival.
  • Facemasks are unlikely to prevent a healthy person from contracting coronavirus. However, if you are already infected, wearing a facemask could keep your illness from others.

See the CDC's website for more information on the coronavirus, including case statistics, prevention tips and travel guidelines.