N.J. Gym Owners Fume Over Lockdown While Seeing Neighbors Reopen

By Elise Young and Bre Bradham | August 20, 2020

Shut down for five months, New Jersey gym owners say their facilities are safer than ever, prepared to protect against Covid-19, flu and whatever other germs lurk in locker rooms and on fitness equipment.

Governor Phil Murphy, though, has yet to give the all-clear, even as gyms in other Northeastern U.S. states reopen their doors. The latest is New York, where gyms can resume business as soon as Aug. 24. New Jersey and North Carolina are the only states where clubs remain closed with no planned opening dates, according to a list posted by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a Boston-based trade group.

On Aug. 14, almost 300 New Jersey gym operators teleconferenced with Murphy’s staff, describing the safety protocols they’ve put in place. They came away with no hint on when they can reopen. A federal lawsuit has been filed by Atilis Gym, the southern New Jersey club that remained open despite court orders to close, winning fans fed up with business shutdowns that they call governmental overreach.

“If a member would say to me, ‘Am I really safe?’ I could tell them they are really, really safe,” Kevin McHugh, chief operating officer of the 9,000-member Atlantic Club in Manasquan and Red Bank, said in an interview. His locations, he said, have spent at least $100,000 on equipment and staff training to prepare for reopening while the novel coronavirus remains a threat throughout the U.S.

Risk Unclear

While Murphy and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo both have said they view indoor gyms as high-risk settings, the science isn’t certain on whether fitness centers pose any more threat than other indoor activities.

South Korea in February and March traced more than 100 Covid-19 cases to fitness-dance classes in 12 locations; a study in Norway published in June found no major outbreak among almost 1,900 gym users. In the U.S. in July, at least three cases were linked to a San Diego gym that defied a county order to close.

“Customers of these facilities engage in physical activities that increase the customers’ respiratory activity, which in turn can increase the amount of respiratory droplets or aerosols in a confined setting,” attorneys for Murphy wrote in a civil action against Atilis.

At a Wednesday news conference, the governor suggested that gym reopenings may come sooner than indoor dining because “being able to functionally wear face coverings at all times versus not at all times is a fairly significant bright line on indoor activities.” Gyms likely will be heavy on “capacity, spacing, face coverings,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Aug. 13 advised fitness-club employees to encourage patrons to clean equipment before and after use. But states are on their own to determine whether gyms and other indoor, nonessential businesses can open, and under which rules. On Aug. 5, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said gyms and other indoor businesses would stay shut for another five weeks as virus cases stabilized but remained high.

Bankruptcy Filings

For some operators, Covid-19 has caused irreversible damage: Gold’s Gym International Inc. and 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc. filed for bankruptcy; New York Health & Racquet Club permanently closed its five Manhattan locations, and Tilton Fitness said in June that it had shut its seven New Jersey spots.

Retro Fitness, with 61 clubs in New Jersey as of March, now has 52, Chief Executive Officer Andrew Alfano testified at a virtual legislative hearing on Aug. 6. The state was allowing tackle football, plus gymnastics, martial arts, yoga and other indoor exercise “except if you are a health club.” Meanwhile, he said, 55,000 employees of 1,200 New Jersey gyms had lost their jobs.

“At what point are you rooting against your own people?” Alfano, a former Starbucks Corp. senior vice president, asked the senators.

New Jersey was hit early and hard by coronavirus, and has accounted for more than 9% of the nation’s 171,000 Covid-19 deaths. The state is months past the virus’ peak, and Murphy has allowed nonessential retail, hair and nail salons, massage parlors and other businesses and services to resume.

“We’re trying to get to ‘Yes’ on things like gyms, indoor dining and theaters,” Murphy said at a Monday news conference in Trenton, after reporting a transmission rate above 1, showing that the virus is spreading. “I can’t tell you when, but we are working our tails off.”

Bakery Lessons

McHugh, the Atlantic Club executive, says he understands the worry, but fitness centers have done their homework.

“We got information about hospitals, surgery centers and even bakeries — they have a big concern with yeast and things of that nature — and we got a lot of options on how to clean and sanitize,” McHugh said.

Atlantic Club locations installed generators that turn water into a hypochlorous acid cleaning solution that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration kills flu, HIV, MRSA, fungi and other pathogens. On reopening, members will find dividers between cardio machines, pool lanes limited to a single swimmer and all staffers — even managers and instructors — with a primary job duty: to maintain cleanliness, including spritzing disinfectant.

“The hardest thing to do is have members come back and have members feel safe,” McHugh said. “We could be open and lose our business.”

Cuomo announced this week that New York gyms and fitness centers can operate at 33% capacity as soon as Aug. 24, with sanitizing and other precautions in place and subject to local officials’ approvals. Staff and customers must wear masks at all times, he said.

“We could have been open much sooner with protocols in place, as many industries were,” said Bill Lia, co-owner of four Vent Fitness clubs, with 25,000 members in the Albany region, and director of the New York State Fitness Alliance, representing about 2,000 fitness clubs.

‘Devastating’ Impact

At Laurie Benenati’s Lagree NY fitness studio in Astoria, revenue was down by 90% despite Zoom and outdoor classes. The fixed costs of operating the studio didn’t go down. “It was devastating,” Benenati said. Some of her instructors moved away during the pandemic.

Benenati and her staff had geared up to reopen with New York’s Phase 4 before the fitness industry was bumped from it. They had spaced the Megaformer machines 6 feet apart and stocked up on personal protective equipment. “Without any reopening date in sight, it was a lot of anxiety,” she said. “We just had no idea what to do.”

In New Jersey, Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Philadelphia, reopened on May 18, almost two months after Murphy’s statewide shutdown order. In a video that has nearly 200,000 views, a crowd cheers as co-owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti kick down the wooden boards blocking their front entrance.

“You will not trample on our rights and you will not destroy our lives,” Smith wrote in an Instagram post. “We will not back down. Ever.”

Atilis has continued to operate despite court orders to close, thousands of dollars in fines and the borough council’s revocation of its operating license. Members have their temperatures taken and must practice social distance, according to John McCann, an attorney representing Smith and Trumbetti. McCann likened some of the gym’s new germ-fighting equipment to that used by NASA “when you want to decontaminate from outer space.”

His clients’ argument, he said in an interview, is that Murphy never closed big-box stores, and hasn’t made clear why he shut down health clubs or disclosed how he will determine whether they can operate again.

“Show me the science,” McCann said. “If you can prove to me that a gym is a danger to the public, we’ll close.”

–With assistance from Chris Dolmetsch.

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