The coronavirus pandemic could permanently close 25% of all health clubs by the end of the year if Washington fails to enact another relief package, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
These closures would be across the industry, said Brent Darden, president and CEO of the IHRSA.
“I can’t pigeonhole [which clubs will close] … [but] the ones that are not making it tend to be those that are undercapitalized and don’t have the financial resources to continue through the long shutdown,” he said.
There are between 40,000 and 50,000 health and fitness clubs in the United States, all of which could be susceptible to closing.
Like most nonessential businesses, the pandemic forced fitness centers to close in March to slow the virus’s spread. As the months passed, companies in other industries reopened, but roughly a fifth of all gyms remain closed, according to RunRepeat, an online athletic shoe review site.
Chris Craytor, president of ACAC Fitness and Wellness, said that if the shutdowns continue for fitness centers, permanently closing becomes more real.
“That’s certainly a fear for everyone in our industry,” he said.
Meanwhile, talks on providing additional relief have stalled in Congress, as political leaders can’t agree on how much aid the government should provide.
“It does not appear that additional relief is coming anytime soon,” Craytor said.
Losing a quarter of all fitness centers in the U.S. could actually be an optimistic projection, according to Meredith Poppler, vice president of communication and leadership engagement at the IHRSA.
“We’re trying to walk the line between being alarmist but also believe in the data. It’s at least that many … I think 25% is a conservative estimate,” she said.
Still, reopening is not a panacea, either. Abiding by social distancing rules can be problematic to bottom lines.
Craytor, who has 13 locations in the mid-Atlantic area, must put 10 feet between workout machines in his Virginia centers. He must also restrict the number of participants allowed to partake in exercise classes.
These requirements have hurt his bottom line because fewer people can use the facility than in normal times. He also said that it is difficult to expand into outdoor spaces, such as many restaurants have done.
“The challenge we have is we can’t take a treadmill very easily out to the sidewalk. We also can’t DoorDash a workout to your home,” he said.
Poppler said the weather could be too hot or too cold for working outdoors. The fires that have erupted in the West have also prevented outdoor exercise.
“It works for some, but it doesn’t work for all,” she said.
Social distancing rules are just one factor bringing down the number of people going to gyms that have reopened. Another issue is the fear that workout centers are infection hot spots, which several fitness experts say is untrue.
“The fear is there. It’s a scary place,” said Sal Di Stefano, a host at Mind Pump Media, a podcast focused on fitness.
“I know on paper it looks like a gym is a terrible place to go, but, so far, from what they have collected, they seem to be pretty safe,” he said.
Di Stefano highlighted a recent IHRSA study that found that 0.0023% of gym visitors tested positive for COVID-19 from fitness centers. The national positive test rate is 4.8%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Sept. 12.
Di Stefano also said that keeping gyms closed sends the wrong message about staying healthy during a pandemic.
“The irony is that we are telling people to not do something that will strengthen their immune system,” he said.
Still, few people are taking advantage of their gym memberships.
Roughly 30% of gym members have returned to their gym since lockdowns lifted in their area, and nearly 60% have canceled or are considering canceling their memberships, according to RunRepeat.
Mark Brittingham, president of BSDI, a health promotion technology company, said that he thinks members will eventually return to their gyms.
“They typically are a pretty robust bunch, and they want to get back to the gym,” he said, adding, “but make no mistake, there is a lot of destruction going on.”
Large workout facilities that offered low membership fees, such as Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness, have claimed bankruptcy as they seek to reorganize their debt.
Di Stefano said that discount gyms could be in trouble because their profit is mainly based on packing members into their gym, which is now prohibited.
“That model completely doesn’t work with any of the laws and regulations that they’re now passing for gyms to reopen,” he said. “If it’s a big-box gym, I would assume you’re going to lose a decent chunk, if not half of them.”
State laws have essentially lowered capacity rates for gyms to 25% or 50%.
To Craytor, fitness facilities are essentially a numbers game, and when lower capacity rates are coupled with social distancing rules, survival gets harder.
“We’re seats-on-the-bus business. So, if you lose 20% of your members, and clubs have lost many, many more than that in terms of who is actually paying to use their facilities, it’s really hard to survive and make money,” he said.
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