Gym folks take on heavy lift of being declared essential

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 24, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: November 24, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Andrea Glass doesn’t wake up every morning determined to move a mountain. She did Saturday.

By Monday morning, she and a handful of gym owners in the city had branded themselves the 901 Fit Coalition and rolled out a website asking gym enthusiasts to go to the mat to get gyms considered as essential businesses.

“More than ever, it is critical that gyms and fitness facilities are deemed as ESSENTIAL businesses, able to operate as necessary to keep the community healthy,” says the open letter people are asked to download and email to Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, or mayors across the county.

“Do you understand what we are doing for the community’s health,” asks Glass, general manager of Burn Boot Camp in Collierville. “We are essential businesses. We cannot be threatened with shutdowns or the way we operate. We are adhering to the CDC guidelines. WHO (World Health Organization) actually says you shouldn’t wear a mask while exercising.”

The latest Shelby County health directive, No. 15 issued late Friday afternoon, keeps gym capacity at 50% but mandated that everyone wear masks while working out.

“We’ll do it, but where did that come from?” Glass says. “What data did that come from?

“We’ve been open since May; we’ve had zero transmission. It feels like a decision was just made so they could say, ‘Look what we are doing.’ ”

Businesses may stay open at 50% capacity; masking, other rules strictly enforced

As soon as the health directive went out Friday, Glass says members began asking if they could suspend their memberships.

By banding together with other gyms and their members, she’s hoping to add timbre to her voice.

Other gyms in the coalition are The Yard in Arlington; Orangetheory Fitness in Lakeland, F45 Training franchises at Wolf Chase and in Germantown, and CycleBar studios in Midtown and Germantown.

Haushalter noted in an email Monday that gyms remain open.

While WHO did say in June it was not safe to wear masks while exercising, a host of others say it is, including the Mayo Clinic.

It recommends low- to moderate-intensity exercise because the decreased airflow can affect breathing and one’s ability to regulate body temperature.

Since the pandemic started, there has been a steady drumroll to categorize them as essential businesses, which means gyms could not be closed.

The effort gained a load of traction in late September when several gyms in California, including a Planet Fitness, were reclassified essential after they joined the Medical Fitness Association, a group that helps workout centers with physician oversight gain national certification.

“Word got out in California. People have been coming out of the woodwork since then,” said Bob Boone, the association’s president and CEO.

He has had 30-40 extensive conversations with gym owners on the subject in the last two weeks. In three weeks, the association has gained 600 members.

“When the pandemic started, a number of our members were looking for help to be deemed essential,” he said.

“We were successful in a number of cases, primarily in West Virginia.”

In North Carolina, the attorney general, Boone says, helped the governor understand that medical fitness centers differ significantly from gyms.

“Those were the two states where we got state rulings because our members were working with us,” he said.

The truth is that unless a facility has physician oversight, connection to the local health continuum and physician referral policies in place, plus ways to intake testing and post-intervention testing, there is little the association can do.

“Some have been making the argument, and I don’t disagree in general, is that exercise in general is important for people’s mental and overall health. It does play a preventive role,” he said.

And while research shows that COVID infection rates traced to gyms are exceedingly low, in the range of .004%, Boone notes that most state governments aren’t looking at it that way.

“It’s a hard place for me to be. The only thing I can say with certainty is that those facilities that have gone through our certification process are absolutely safe places to go,” Boone said. “I can tell you without much hesitation, but not assurance, that association members who have been members for a long time are likely to be safe places because they follow hospital infection-control practices.”

The association has no power to declare whether a gym is essential or not, Boone says.

But it has been successful in intervening to help members.

“We help people craft their arguments.”

While he’s giving plenty of guidance these days, he makes no guarantees.

“You have to meet all the HIPAA requirements, do the interventions. And it all needs to be clinically relevant.”

Based on the number of people who had commented on 901 Fit Coalition’s social media posts by early Monday afternoon, Glass expected the letter had been downloaded 50-100 times.

“One of the conversations we continue to have is how things are deemed essential. From March to May, gyms were closed, but liquor stores were allowed to remain open. Why?”

Before the pandemic, about 150 people a day worked out at the Burn Boot Camp.

“Now, it’s closer to 100 per day with five to 15 checking in with virtual workouts,” Glass said.

Under the pandemic rules, members at her gym have to preregister; equipment is wiped off after every individual use.

“We used to do it throughout the day, now it is with every touch. If I use a piece of equipment, I wipe it off before the next person touches it.”

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Andrea Glass Bob Boone Alisa Haushalter
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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