With the world slowly starting to come out of lockdown, many fitness facility owners and trainers are looking at how they will start to get back to some semblance of normal.
However, until a vaccine is developed and the risk of transmission is eliminated or significantly contained, normal will just be a far off dream for many. Gyms pose a specific risk profile for this particular disease: shared touch points on equipment, high and heavy respiration rate, and a high possibility of being an asymptomatic carrier all pose big challenges for small boutique and large commercial gym facilities.
How can you build a plan to re-open while making sure these risks are mitigated as effectively as possible? I’ll offer some thoughts and actionable steps in todays post.
Assuming social distancing considerations of being outside of 6 feet from each person you come in to close proximity with, a realistic “bubble” of space to maintain this is a 6 foot by 6 foot region, or approximately 36 square feet of floor space. A more effective spacing would likely be a 9 foot by 9 foot spacing, or a 81 square foot floor space per person. This means if you have a 4000 square foot facility (excluding office space, storage, or other non training floor square footage), the maximum number of people you could have in that space would be about 49 people. This would include staff, trainers, and members/clients.
This may mean setting up a scheduling system to ensure a facility isn’t operating with more than the maximum number of people their space can accommodate, cancelling or at least modifying group fitness options to increase spacing between members, or moving classes to an online virtual format.
For facilities that offer personal training, the trainer is counted into the total number of people, meaning if the above example could hold 49 people, and 10 of those are trainers, only 39 members would be able to enter the gym at a given time. This may mean a reduced hours schedule for most trainers to access their clients, but share the space for all trainers at the facility.
This doesn’t even speak of the spacing elements in change rooms, shower facilities, or other amenities that are notoriously small for the number of people in them, bringing me to my second consideration.
A deeper consideration to this is if your region has a limit on specific gathering sizes, be it 15 people max, 50 people, or no limit. If your gym is in a region that has a limit of 15 people, but your gym is currently operating with 30 people inside it, does this violate that statute or not, and if so, does it leave the facility open to a large fine?
During an average day, it would be common place to see a rush of people hitting the change rooms on a schedule, packing it prior to work, lunch hour, and during the after work hours. This could mean a very small space would have a few dozen people in there, creating a significant challenge to social distancing measures mentioned above. With a reduction in potential volume of individuals for busier times due to the spacing considerations mentioned in the prior section, it could be mitigated, but it may mean facilities tell members to come in their workout gear and leave in their workout gear, eschewing the use of change rooms altogether, or limiting their use, opening up secondary secured spaces for changing, whatever may be necessary to maintain social distancing.
Gyms are notoriously challenging to keep clean. It may be necessary to hold members accountable if they aren’t sanitizing their equipment after each and every use, pay staff to be on constant cleaning duties, or reduce hours to provide daily deep cleans of all contact surfaces.
If you have a communal water fountain, it may be impossible to keep to standards during initial opening phases, so it may be worthwhile to shut them down and encourage members to bring their own water supplies, or provide low cost bottled water to each member who comes in.
This is the big one. As we’re learning more about this disease, it’s more apparent that even with strict hygeine and spacing, not controlling respiratory droplet transmission could be a significant risk of spreading infection. In a gym setting, respiration rate and volume increases, giving significant opportunity to spread this disease. It would be worthwhile to mandate each staff, trainer, member, and client be required to wear a face covering at all times while inside the gym to reduce the risk of transmission. The covering would have to be able to cover both the nose and mouth at all times, and would make breathing during exercise more challenging, but unfortunately to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets, it may be the only notable way to control it.
This may mean all staff are to use reusable face coverings of some sort, or daily disposable ones, and all members/clients are provided with disposable face coverings each time they enter the gym. If the member doesn’t want to wear a face covering, they would have to be barred from entering, as we know asymptomatic carriers exist.
A few polls I’ve seen asking whether people will be ready to go back to gyms when they re-open have been a bit surprising. In many of these polls, most respondents said they would not want to return to the gym.
If this is true, it will mean a significant financial hit to many fitness centres if their core membership is reduced by half, yet their operating costs remain at 100% of pre-virus levels. If their governments have financial assistanceship programs, this can offset some of these costs, but doesn’t help the revenue side as much.
In order for many gyms to stay afloat, it may be necessary for them to increase their rates, in some cases double existing rates, which is a significant hardship for their potential to acquire members and keep members. There will also be the added expenses of staffing and supplies to clean more vigorously and routinely, plus any personal protective equipment they are required to purchase regularly.
If they’ve loaned out or rented out their equipment, they’ll need to get that equipment back! Some members may not want to give it back, preferring to continue to workout at home, so if that’s the case, what will the facility do: chase their members for the equipment, purchase new equipment, entice the member back into the gym, or just wait it out and forego using that equipment?
A rate increase may be the only way they can make it through until a full operation can be achieved. This may mean an average gym membership would cost over $100 a month or more, depending on location, amenities that are available, etc. Low cost operators like Planet Fitness will be the hardest hit for this, as their core offering is the low barrier of entry. If their rates move from $10 a month up to 30 or even 40, their membership may not be able to maintain that, of those members who are looking to return regularly.
These plans can limit exposure, but nothing will likely entirely eliminate it. Fitness centres will have to have a game plan in place for if transmission happens at their facility. This could mean mandatory quarantine with pay for affected staff, shutting down memberships, closing down the facility again for a certain period of time, bringing in new staff, and assisting in contact tracing.
Local Health Authorities
Your gyms plan will have to meet the requirements of your local health authority, regardless of what they decide. If it doesn’t meet the requirements, it may not be able to open earlier. If you’re a gym owner, dig into what those requirements are, and make sure you’re tailoring your plan to it. If you’re waiting for the local authority to issue recommendations, write to them with your specific plan, outlining all steps and considerations, plus what you have done to get ready and what you will do in cases of localized transmission.
In some regions, small personal training studios with very limited memberships are lumped in with massive commercial facilities, as they are considered within the same industry, but offer very different core services. A private studio can control the number of people within their facility more effectively than a large scale gym, so if you run a private studio and want to open early, write out your plan, submit it for approval, and make the case as to why you can meet their requirements specifically. It may be something where you are given special operating considerations and can open a few weeks or months before large commercial facilities can open, which can mean avoiding bankruptcy.
All of these are hard things to consider, but are necessary things to think about and plan for in order for a gym to reopen. If a facility just opened their doors without taking specific steps to limit exposure and transmission, they would be reckless, and could potentially be a massive spreading location, meaning we would all have to go on lockdown again. No one wants that, so to keep making forward progress, we’ll all have to make some adjustments, forego some liberties we used to have available and will have available again, and just get through this time as best as possible.
I’m hopeful we can all get back into the gyms soon, and want to see all your smiling sweaty happy faces in there, albeit from behind a face covering. I’ll have mine on, and we can foot tap like Kid N Play to say hello.