The few remaining states that closed gyms throughout the summer months due to COVID-19 are now allowing facilities to reopen—under close watch.
New gym restrictions impose strict cleaning procedures, mask mandates, and limited capacity. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer allowed gyms to reopen September 9, as long as they enforce a mask mandate and operate at 25 percent capacity indoors. Gyms are trying to rehire staff after six months of closure, which has been a particular challenge with pools, which require employees with water safety training.
Compliance is expected to remain high because states have already fined many gyms and small businesses—for re-opening before restrictions were lifted, or for not following all rules imposed on them through executive orders. A Saginaw Township gym in Michigan was fined $2,100, according to an August 21 report by Mlive. Eight fitness centers in Washington state were fined more than $77,000 for violating executive orders, according to an August 5 report in the Seattle Times.
Small businesses are making the best of a challenging situation, says Mark Harmsworth, Director of the Small Business Center at the Washington Policy Center.
“They are frustrated with the fact that they are effectively having to enforce the governor’s edicts around masks,” Harmsworth said.
The Larger Impact
In addition to complying and enforcing executive orders, gyms and small businesses face the additional hurdle of trying to pay the bills, says Brian Balfour, executive vice president of the Civitas Institute in North Carolina, one of the states where gyms have had to keep their doors shut the longest.
“Fines on small businesses that have been closed for months and are only allowed to reopen at partial capacity are especially onerous,” Balfour said. “Many small businesses that were shutdown will never come back, and the fines will serve to ensure that even more will fail.”
The restrictions could have an impact on business owners in the future, Balfour says.
“Financially, of course, the long-term effects will be more gyms going out of business now and fewer entrepreneurs being willing to open gyms in the future out of fear of being shut down by government in the future anytime another virus emerges as a perceived threat to public health,” Balfour said.
The impact will not be felt just by gyms. Profit margins for restaurants and retail is very slim, about 3 percent for food and clothing, says Harmsworth, who describes one particular restaurant owner in Washington state.
“If he is given any additional mandates or fines, he will have to close up shop and walkaway,” Harmsworth said.
Losing restaurants, shops and fitness centers hurts not just the owners, but the communities they serve, Balfour says.
“There are of course health effects when people are prohibited from exercising,” said Balfour in reference to gyms. “With obesity-related illnesses so prevalent, and depression on the rise during the lockdowns, allowing people to exercise is extremely critical right now. A regular exercise regimen is important for both physical and mental health.”
Gym owners should employ the tactics taken by the construction industry in Washington, by organizing with like-minded small businesses, Harmsworth says.
“Gyms could pull in the bowling alleys and some of the other similar facility styles and form an industry group and start lobbying,” Harmsworth said.
In Washington, some local gym owners have taken this approach, banding together with the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce to form the Tri-City Fitness Coalition to advocate for the reopening of gyms and fitness centers. On August 28, 2020, the newly formed group sent a letter to Governor Inslee and Secretary of Health John Wiesman.
Balfour echoed this sentiment.
“The best way is to generate a significant enough number of advocates to make their voice heard at the legislature and governor’s office,” Balfour said. “This includes rallying both the business owners themselves and the owners encouraging their customers to join them in their cause. The business owners need to make the case that they have plans to open and operate safely for both their employees and customers.”
Kelsey Hackem, J.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Washington state.