Health clubs, gyms challenge California coronavirus pandemic rules in court

The California Fitness Alliance filed a lawsuit charging the Newsom administration with unfairly targeting this industry as part of COVID-19 containment efforts and demanding that gyms be allowed to reopen.

In the lawsuit, gym owners claim the state closed gyms without showing proof that they play a role in the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The legal action, filed Sept. 15 in Los Angeles County Superior Court by this 300-member organization, alleges that the lengthy closure comes at a time when millions of people are being deprived of the ability to exercise indoors to maintain health during a summer of record high temperatures and unhealthful air quality due to wildfire smoke.

“We are not looking for a fight,” said Francesca Schuler, a founding partner of the alliance and chief executive of In-Shape Health Clubs. “We are committed to being as safe as possible. We are in the health business. That’s what we care about more than anything.”

Some 30% to 40% of fitness industry businesses have closed for good, due in part to more restrictive measures than those for restaurants. This suit is one of many filed by various California business sectors impacted by closures due to COVID-19.

While California’s COVID-19 case rate continues to decline, under new state rules, fitness centers can reopen indoors at 10% of capacity when a county’s infections drop from “widespread” (seven cases per 100,000 of population, color-coded purple) to “substantial” (four to seven cases per 100,000, coded red).

The state’s orange zone allows for 10% of capacity indoors. In counties with “minimal” infections (less than one per 100,000, the yellow zone), gyms can reopen indoors at 50% capacity.

As of last Tuesday, 33 of California’s 58 counties continued to report widespread infection totals.

For the Parkpoint Health Clubs in Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Healdsburg, they are staying open by doing everything outdoors — water classes and swimming — or through virtual classes online.

General Manager Jennifer Anderson said that under the governor’s four-color system ranking county’s progress on the virus, gyms have been misclassified and should not be grouped with bars and restaurants.

“We’re following all the rules and trying to be creative by placing weight benches, spin bikes and other exercise equipment outside plus offering 25–30 Zoom classes and YouTube 10-minute workouts,” Anderson said. “I don’t see all these modifications as just temporary. They could change the way we do business forever.”

She said a meeting is planned with the owner to determine whether it will be economically viable if Sonoma County moves from the purple to the red category, where Marin County moved Tuesday, allowing 10% occupancy indoors, or if they will wait until this percentage rises to 25% or higher.

Anderson said the frequency of policy changes on staying open or closing back down has been a major concern. She noted that when first able to open outdoors, then they were told they could reopen inside, two weeks later they were told to shut down again.

During the first four months of the shelter-in-place mandate, all staff members were paid full wages. However, after the shutdown there were layoffs and staff downsizing.

“This was the hardest thing for us to have to do. We hope something breaks for us soon,” Anderson said. “We have lost up to 40% of our members — including those on leaves of absence at a reduced rate — while also offering virtual memberships at a lower fee.”

At HealthQuest in Napa, General Manager Gail Garavente said she hopes the California Fitness Alliance lawsuit will succeed. She noted that in Colorado, for example, they have a less restrictive policy that allows up to 50 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the state’s green category, enabling businesses to stay open. That’s a threshold seven times higher than in California.

“The shutdown of California’s fitness centers was not called for,” Garavente said. “The governor has not released data showing the rationale for shutting down gyms in counties with seven or more COVID-19 cases. At this low level of positive cases to trigger business shutdowns, there is not a state in the union that would be in the yellow zone.”

She said the gym operators don’t have any idea where these policy numbers come from, and that it is hard to believe that California is following science and data in making these rules.

“From my perspective, the governor only has the right to shut down the economy except in a major emergency,” Garavente said.

Napa County was among the first to enter the red level when Sacramento rolled out the new system in late August.

“A 10% limit is not going to be enough to generate income needed to stay in business,” she said.

HealthQuest was forced to lay off 90 of its staff members and has already hired 20 back, while operating solely outdoors using an online reservation system to ensure that the recommended capacity for social distancing is not exceeded at its. two outdoor pools, for children’s swimming events, at the weight and cardio classes and other exercise equipment areas.

The Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa has taken its role very seriously when it comes to protecting its members.

“We haven’t seen or heard of a single member that has contracted COVID,” said Vicki Morse, general manager. “At the same time, we feel hobbled by the restrictions being imposed. We are going above and beyond with electrostatic sprayers, extra disinfecting measures, remodeling our locker areas, requiring social distancing outdoors and imposing more rigorous standards than the county requires. We did our job really well, and yet have to limit our capacity to extremely low levels.”

She said her club moved everything outside, with a large tent over the tennis courts, yet there’s news that some large clubs have filed or are filing for bankruptcy.

“Frankly, we don’t know how long we will be able to operate and need at least 25% occupancy to survive for the long term,” Morse said.

Morse recalled that when the pandemic started, Peter Rumble, CEO with the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, hosted a video conference focus group with representatives from area fitness clubs, exercise centers and martial arts businesses to discuss what we all needed to do.

“Collectively, we created a reasonable criteria that was later integrated into the county’s safety protocols,” Morse said. “However, when the new statewide four-tier system was established, Sacramento did not include any input or collaboration from the county.

Gym owners know how to operate safely indoors, and they desire a change in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy so gyms can increase capacity, she said.

“With today’s policies, most mom-and-pop health-related facilities do not have the ability to operate, much less larger health clubs,” Morse said.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association said on Sept. 14 that data show clubs aren’t spreaders of the COVID-19 virus. The group said doctors are perplexed as to why lawmakers aren’t seeing the positive impact that fitness activities bring to the public, especially in a time when physical activity can help mitigate the worst of COVID-19 symptoms and cases.

In a national study of more than 49.4 million health club visits, only 0.0023% tested positive for COVID-19, more than 500 times less than the current estimated U.S. national average. This study, conducted by the trade association and MZM, a technology and knowledge transfer company specializing in member tracking within the fitness industry, evidence showed that fitness facilities are safe and not contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.

This study analyzed millions of member check-in data across 2,873 gyms, sports clubs and boutique fitness centers over the course of three months, from May 1 through Aug. 6, based on self-reported infection rates.

"Fitness centers are needed now more than ever to help us stay active and maintain a healthy immune system," added Robert Sallis, M.D., with Kaiser Permanente.

According to a news release issued by IHRSA on Sept. 2, "COVID-19 risk factors haven't changed since the pandemic began – obesity, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes put you at much higher risk for both short- and long-term complications. It's imperative that we all make real change now to stay healthy given that exercise is an essential part of life."

A KCRA-3 reporter in Sacramento asked Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, if COVID-19 rates were going down, when would he allow more people to work out in gyms.

“I really can’t comment about active litigation,” Ghaly said. "We're continuing to work with counties as they move through it to see when they decide and it's appropriate under the state's sort of ultimate guidelines to be able to not just have gyms considered for increased operations but other sectors as well.”

Associated Press and KCRA-3 contributed to this report.

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