CAPITAL REGION — Ready or not, gyms can reopen starting Monday and county governments have been tasked with inspecting them for coronavirus safety protocols.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week issued long-awaited guidelines for the reopening of gyms, health clubs and fitness centers, giving local governments about a week to prepare for the inspection of thousands of private businesses of varying sizes across the state.
“Gyms can open as soon as August 24, but the locality must open them by September 2,” Cuomo said Aug. 17.
“The localities have a role here. They have to inspect the gyms before they open or within 2 weeks of their opening to make sure they’re meeting all the requirements. That variation is to give localities time, if the localities need it. If the localities can get the inspections done or be ready to inspect, then they can open up August 24. If a locality can’t get ready to do inspections, then they get another week. They can do it September 2.”
The guidelines for gyms are in some ways stricter than those for bars or restaurants which were allowed to open weeks earlier. Gyms must limit the number of people inside them to 33 percent capacity, mandate masks be worn at all times except when a person is drinking or eating, and require customers to fill out coronavirus contact tracing forms, similar to the ones required at hospitals and doctors offices.
During a reporter conference call on Aug. 6 Cuomo said the reopening of gyms was being delayed due to data from other states showing activity at gyms may lead to the spread of coronavirus.
“Gyms are one of the areas where you have to be very careful, and we know that,” Cuomo said.
New York state’s caution was backed up by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website earlier this month, when the federal agency posted research from the medical journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” showing South Korean medical researchers have determined 112 people in that country were infected with COVID-19 over a 24-day period after contact in fitness dance studios. The researchers have theorized the often warm, moist environment in exercise areas combined with rapid breathing can lead to infected aerosolized droplets lingering in the air for up to 3 hours.
Charlie Cassara, the owner of a gym on Long Island and the founder of a nonprofit trade group called the New York Fitness Coalition, said he thinks the rules issued for gyms are excessive, and he thinks the data and the science is not yet conclusive as to the risks for gyms.
“We were the first to close and we’re last to open,” Cassara said. “We’re the only industry that has to contact trace. We’re the only industry that has to have health surveys every single time [a customer comes] in. The only place you find that is in a doctor’s office, so there are things here that are above and beyond, and we’re not sure why, but we’ll do them.”
Cassara said he thinks Cuomo issued the new rules last week in response to pressure from his trade group’s lawsuit demanding the state allow gyms to reopen. Cassara said a hearing in the lawsuit was scheduled for three days after Cuomo’s announcement.
“You can draw your own conclusions about that, but that case got dismissed once he decided to open us up,” he said.
Cassara said he formed his nonprofit when New York state decided not to allow gyms to reopen at the end of Phase 4 of Cuomo’s un-pausing New York plan. He said 1,500 gyms have joined the New York Fitness Coalition which is also in the process of filing a $500 million class action lawsuit against New York state alleging an illegal “taking” of revenue from gym businesses. He said he’s not happy with most of the reopening process.
“I’m OK with the 33 percent, I’d actually be OK with the rules if it wasn’t something that was slapped together over 48 hours,” he said. “I’d be OK if the municipalities — if everybody — knew about it, but the fact is nobody did and what it’s creating now is a logjam of inspections and lack of inspectors, people not knowing what to do, panic, are we going to pass, are we going to fail? I’m very surprised that gyms aren’t supposed to be inspected prior to opening. We’re almost set up to fail. Nobody knows enough about the DOH guidelines. The county DOHs are saying ‘we’ve never inspected a gym, what do you want us to do?'”
‘The localities have a role here’
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said after Cuomo’s announcement he scrambled to put together an inspection task force for his county that includes himself and several county department heads.
“Quite frankly, I’m not going to take nurses off of contact tracing to do these inspections during that week,” he said.
“I think that’s a core function and we just don’t have the people there, so we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”
Ossenfort said task No. 1 for his county is to figure out where the gyms are.
“We’re starting with a blank sheet of paper, and we just want to make sure we put together a full list,” he said.
On Friday Schenectady County issued a news release stating all gyms and fitness centers must read, and be in compliance with New York State guidelines, which include creating a business safety plan and completing an electronic affirmation, and after that they can set up an inspection via the internet here.
“Businesses may request an inspection after these requirements have been met, either before, or upon opening,” reads the SCPHS news release. “Inspections will be coordinated by SCPHS within 14 days of opening. If found non-compliant during an inspection, SCPHS will work with businesses to reach compliance with NYS guidelines.”
Keith Brown, Schenectady County Public Health Services Interim Director, said the county will do all it can to help gym businesses reopen.
“After meeting with several local businesses, we feel confident that all fitness-related facilities may open as early as Monday, as long as they meet the guidelines,” he stated in the news release.
The rolling timetable of when the businesses can open and when they have to be inspected, however, has already led to differing interpretations of the new rules, particularly in rural counties short on public health department staff.
Erin Jennings, owner of “Tribe Fitness” located on Route 30 in the town of Perth, said she’s ready to open up now.
She said she reached out to Fulton County Director of Public Health Laurel Headwell and attempted to schedule an inspection, but was told the county is waiting for more guidance from the state.
“My understanding is, we’re able to open and it’s up to the county to inspect us, as long as I put it out there ‘hey, I’m ready, can you come check me out?’ it’s up to them to follow through on that,” she said.
Chris Defibaugh, executive director of the Fulton County YMCA, said he’s interpreting the rules a little differently.
“The way I read the regulations, the scheduled inspection actually has to be on the books within two weeks,” he said. “So, you can set your opening date, but you have to schedule it with the department of health.”
One of the new guidelines pertains to HVAC air ventilation systems. NYSDOH wants air handling systems to upgrade their filters to the level of MERV-13 or an industry equivalent, to provide maximum air quality safety for gym participants.
Defibaugh said the FC-YMCA has the MERV-13 filters, which cost about $5 more per filter then what they had been paying, but he’s not entirely sure what the regulation requires.
“We are still waiting for clear and specific guidance from our local DOH, especially related to how much of our building has to have MERV-13 filters,” he said. “Because we haven’t had that guidance, we haven’t had a chance to properly train our staff on what the new YMCA member experience is going to be like.”
Defibaugh said he plans to reopen the FC-YMCA fitness center by Sept. 1, which is the same date being chosen by many of the member organizations of the Alliance of New York State YMCAs.
Ossenfort said he’s lucky that his county’s DPW Director Eric Mead has some familiarity with HVAC systems, which should allow for competent inspections of larger gyms. He said he participates in a weekly “control room” meeting with New York state officials and the leaders of other counties in the Mohawk Valley Region. He said state officials have told him counties can evaluate smaller gyms without HVAC systems on a case-by-case basis as to what they need to do to reopen safely.
“We cannot treat a large box gym the same way we treat some of these smaller gyms that have smaller classes, manageable numbers and I feel can do it safely without some of these advanced and expensive upgrades,” he said.
Nikki Lynne Hazzard, the owner of “Hazzards Fitness and Tan” a 2,000 square foot gym and tanning salon in the Village of Palatine Bridge, said she’s spoken to Ossenfort, and she’s glad he’ll be one of the people doing the inspections.
She said her business has no air filtration system, it was built out of a pole barn, with an air conditioner plugged into a wall. She said she uses several 4 by 4 foot industrial fans to circulate the air for her customers. She said she might possibly install a floor model air filtration unit, but a larger HVAC system would be cost prohibitive.
“We have three entries, we’re going to keep them open,” she said. “It’s going to be tough, and I hope we can make it.”
Hazzard said her gym operates 24 hours a day, and does not always have an attendant on duty for the gym part of the business and members use a fingerprint system to go in and out. She said Ossenfort has assured her her business can remain open 24-hours-a-day as long as it complies with the state’s regulations regarding contract tracing and the other rules.
“It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s a pain right in the butt,” she said.
Businesses on the brink
Cassara said most gyms employ independent contractors, making it hard to access much federal assistance through the $2 trillion U.S. Cares Act, which offered loans to businesses to help sustain payrolls during the pandemic shut down. He said many of the 1,500 members of his New York Fitness Coalition will never reopen.
“Twenty percent have already folded, gone out, and probably another 20 percent will only last another few months because the landlords just aren’t working with them or their finances,” he said. “For example, I have a member who pays $86,000 a month in rent and hasn’t paid since March and he has a $1.6 million personal [Small
Business Administration loan], how is that man ever surviving? He’ll try, but it’s not going to work.”
Jennings said she has operated her business Tribe Fitness out of its current 2,600 square foot location for four years. She said she created the business after studying sports management at the College of St. Rose, and understands the severe strain gyms have been under since the shut down in March, and the steep set of challenges gym will have remaining open with classes cut to 33 percent capacity, and gym members weary of wearing masks while they exercise. She said she decided not to pursue any pandemic finance relief loans, but is holding that option in reserve for if there is a second shut down in the fall or winter.
“We’re seeing gym after gym crumbling, and closing and it’s sad,” she said. “Being in the gym owners group, across New York so many were so close to being able to reopen, and they just can’t do it. They just can’t survive. It’s heartbreaking.”
She said after the pandemic hit she allowed her members to sign-out exercise equipment, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and exercise bands.
“I told them if they can fit it in their car, they can take it,” she said. “We’re a family at Tribe, so there was no one at Tribe that I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking my equipment knowing that it wasn’t going to be returned.”
Tribe Fitness created virtual classes for its members, streaming them onto a private Facebook page, creating a growing catalog of 25-300 workouts, often led by unpaid instructors.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Jennings said she believes her business will survive, but only because of the loyalty of its members.
“I would say, probably 70 percent of them said ‘we’re in this with you. We want to be there when you open. We’re not going to let you fail’,” she said. “I’m sorry, I get emotional, but they’ve kept paying. We’ve done virtual. My husband and I spent whatever money we had to create an outdoor space. As soon as we could go outdoors we were half-outdoors, half-virtual, and there was a crew knocking on our door ready to come. As soon as we can go indoors, we’ll do all three.”
Cassara said most successful gyms operate with a 25 percent profit margin, but that’s when they can have 100 percent capacity for per diem fitness classes and other activities.
“If at 100 percent you’ve got classes of 27 or 30, and now you’re down to maybe 6 people, it’s going to be very difficult to recoup that loss, unless landlords work with owners,” he said.
Defibaugh said the FC-YMCA is prepared to follow all of the state’s guidelines, providing six feet of space between its treadmills and other equipment. He said members will be required to sign-up a day ahead of time for 1-hour time slots.
“We’ll always have a wellness attendant on, so if you make a reservation for an hour and your workout is going a little bit long, as long as there aren’t ten other people waiting, then we’ll be able to accommodate that,” he said.
He said he recommends people take it easy at first with respect to trying to exercise while wearing a mask.
“Like with any training or exercising program, I think it’s important that when you’re adding something new, you do it in moderation, so in the case of wearing a mask I think it’s important for our members to monitor their effort and exertion level until they’re full used to it,” he said. “So, if you were able to run 3 miles per week in March, maybe come in and try a mile or half mile.”
He said social distancing will also be adhered to in the FC-YMCA’s locker rooms, where available lockers will be spread out six feet apart. He said available showers will also have signs that members will be required to flip to indicate they have recently been used, signaling to custodians that they need to be cleaned before anyone else can use them.
Hazzard said the showers and the sauna at her gym will remain closed. She said she invested about $300,000 into her business, which opened at its current location in May 2019.
She said when the coronavirus shut down her business in May she was able to get $1,000 in federal relief for her small business, but she was forced to use her nursing license to obtain work and income.
“As soon as COVID hit, and the bills were still due, I went right down to New York City, and I did nursing full time,” she said. “If I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to go work as a nurse, I would have lost this. Every dollar I ever had in my life went into this gym.”
Hazzard said she has continued to work part-time as a nurse at nursing homes over the past few months. She said she’s been fortunate enough to never contract coronavirus despite working under dangerous conditions.
She recalled the horror of her experience at the height of the coronavirus death toll in vivid detail.
“I could have been anybody, but the [hospital officials] saw me in scrubs so they handed me a whole bunch of IV kits and said ‘anybody who doesn’t have an IV, please put them in’,” she said. “So, I’d go down the line, put them all in, and then an hour later the first patient passed away, and then the next one, and then the next one, and then we’re clearing out patient rooms and putting the AC on high to make them refrigerated, because there’s no where to put the deceased. There’s no coroner. They’re not coming. There is no where to go. It was pretty tough, it was just like you see on TV, everything that was being reported was really happening. It was chaos, no one was prepared.”
She said her experience in New York City taught her to never underestimate the dangers of COVID-19. She said she hopes to quit nursing for good and focus on her business from now on.
“I’m starting to back off now because my tanning salon is open, and I need to prepare for the gym,” she said. “I’ve always said, this is what I’m doing, my gym. This is my future. I built this. This is where my heart is.”