(CNN) – When President Donald Trump revealed his guidelines for “reopening America” last week, among the bold names of companies and institutions that could reopen were restaurants, cinemas and places of worship – as long as they followed strict social standards distancing protocols. Tucked near the bottom of the list, just above a warning that bars should stay closed, there was a curious inclusion: the gyms.
Although part of the routine for many Americans, gyms and fitness clubs appear to be at particular risk of spreading through contact with a contagious virus. Full of people sweating and breathing hard, sharing equipment and space, gyms are in many ways the last type of business to prioritize during a deadly pandemic.
Their inclusion follows a last-minute lobbying spurt from an industry not known to flex its muscles in Washington. While not all of the big companies are part of the effort, conversations with 10 leaders in the fitness club industry reveal an influential network of relationships that has grown over the past few weeks and helped move front row gyms – even for the surprises of many in the industry.
Figures to highlight in the effort include a Trump-loving Pennsylvania fitness center owner, Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew, billionaire real estate mogul Steve Ross and the American Surgeon General.
Among the most influential supporters is an Iranian-born founder of Life Time Fitness’s Bahram Akradi, one of the country’s largest fitness club chains. Akradi has presented governors and the Trump administration with what he calls a “comprehensive and multifaceted tactical plan” to fight the coronavirus and rebuild the economy. He now finds himself in one of Trump’s economic recovery task forces and in conference calls with the president himself, including the day before Trump published his new guidelines.
Several people in fitness center businesses – from executives of giants like Gold’s Gym to independent health clubs – told CNN they did not expect gyms to be mentioned in plans to reopen the gym. Trump’s administration or Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who announced on Monday the fitness centers have been included in several public space activities that could begin to reopen by the end of the week.
“We were so lucky and we got our message out to the right people,” said Meredith Poppler, a senior official with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the industry’s main business group.
Poppler told CNN that in recent weeks, the IHRSA, which receives funding from many branded gym companies, has started a court press to deal with the economic fallout affecting gyms and clubs. fitness. This included hiring more lobbyists and aggressively pressuring his message about the importance of fitness during a pandemic to Washington lawmakers as well as Trump administration officials.
The messaging worked even better than expected.
“We were as surprised as anyone when we saw President Trump announce the three phases and the gymnasiums were in the first phase,” said Poppler.
Connections to the White House
The day before Trump announced his plan at his daily press conference, the president had a conference call with 16 leaders from various industries to discuss the reopening of the country. Akradi and Ross were on call, who, in addition to his real estate empire, owned the majority of luxury fitness companies Equinox and SoulCycle – an oversized presence for the relatively small fitness club industry.
Akradi insists that there was no question on this call of including gyms in the first group of open businesses.
“Everyone has talked about their employees, taking care of their people,” said Akradi. “We never discussed gymnasiums. “
Another key figure is Jim Worthington, a member of the IHRSA board of directors and something from a Trump superfan. Owner of two gymnasiums in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, Worthington was selected for a place on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition in 2018. He is also the founder of PAC People4Trump, whose website presents photos of Worthington at the President’s inauguration in January 2017.
In an interview, Worthington told CNN that he had worked with several people in the administration on gymnasium-related matters. The first is Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York mayor (and Trump’s lawyer) Rudy Giuliani. Andrew is an official from the White House Public Liaison Office, and Worthington says he worked with Giuliani to try to allow large multi-location health clubs to qualify for a similar exception given to restaurant chains in the recently paid protection for small businesses. loan program. (Worthington says the issue must be resolved by Congress, not the White House.)
Worthington said he raised concerns about the industry through Kristina Harder, executive director of the Presidential Fitness Council and former senior assistant to assistant secretary of health Brett Giroir. According to a former health and social services official, Harder is also close to the Ivanka Trump team.
On behalf of IHRSA, Worthington also emailed surgeon general Jerome Adams for comments on the guidelines that health clubs should follow to ensure they comply with CDC regulations. A Surgeon General spokesperson confirmed that Adams had told Worthington that he would be “happy to review” these guidelines.
Worthington said he couldn’t take full credit for including gyms in phase one.
“I think it was a collective effort,” he told CNN. “I think there have been a handful of people and not only pat me on the back, but I may be one of them. “
IHRSA was delighted with this decision, calling it a “small victory” for a relatively small industry that earns only $ 32 billion a year. The group even wrote a letter on April 17 to President Trump, saying they were “eternally grateful” for the decision. Worthington and Joe Moore, President of IHRSA, signed the letter.
A challenge for gymnasiums
There are serious concerns that the gyms that open in phase one may become vectors of the virus, just as the epidemic could otherwise end. One of them is Dr. Saju Mathew, a family medicine specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, who studied public health at Emory University.
“How are they going to make sure people get along six feet apart at all times?” Will they just let people falter? I just have a lot of health and safety concerns. And then the locker room could be even more problematic, “Mathew told CNN.
Many gymnasium executives who spoke to CNN said they were busy planning the reopening and trying to do it carefully. The accelerated schedule in Georgia, they said, means that many are unlikely to be ready to reopen their facilities on Friday. A Planet Fitness spokesperson told CNN that there was “no set date” for the reopening of their clubs in Georgia or elsewhere in the country. Orangetheory Fitness will reopen certain franchise stores in Georgia on May 11, the company confirmed to CNN in a statement.
Equinox Group CEO Harvey Spevak told CNN’s Cristina Alesci that the company would not open its SoulCycle studios in Georgia on Friday when restrictions on gymnasiums are lifted in that state. Spevak said the company is working with external infectious disease experts who will help it make decisions about its reopening.
And some leaders who spoke to CNN expressed some reluctance over the lack of federal directives dictating what to do when they reopen. Adam Zeitsiff, CEO of Gold’s Gym, said that even in Mongolia, where Gold’s Gym also operates, the government has imposed member distances, gym quota capacity and employee testing guidelines.
“There is still no final directive given to us as to how we are to reopen,” said Zeitsiff.
All gym leaders CNN met said they had worked on company-wide standards for cleaning and social distancing to keep members safe when they reopened . Zeitsiff said that in phase one, employees will be asked to wear a mask and gloves, and people will be responsible for monitoring who is using which machine – entering and cleaning after members are cleaned. They also plan to check the temperature of the employees.
Other gym conglomerates like Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness said they plan to use their business app to register people in their clubs with less contact between members and employees, including eliminating the bounds touch screen recording. 24 Hour Fitness said they plan to open their gyms in 60-minute sessions throughout the day, followed by a 30-minute closed cleaning period, according to a statement they provided to CNN.
Jim Rowley, CEO of Crunch Global, said part of their procedures upon reopening will be to use the gym app to limit class sizes for group fitness classes. He said they also plan to use it to register members. Since the Crunch gyms closed, Rowley says his staff have been working on a “37-page manual” on their reopening procedures.
The franchise invests in special cleaning methods and hires more staff to meet the increased demand for cleaning.
“We are spending – and that is the hard part,” said Rowley. “We have no income, but we have to spend money to reopen work, hire new staff, have more hours for the janitor sanitizer and buy more expensive products with safety in mind.” “
Anthony Geisler, CEO and founder of Xponential Fitness, which runs eight boutique fitness chains, including the popular Row House, Pure Barre and Club Pilates, said he thought boutique fitness studios are safer to reopen than large gym franchises, as these are often smaller spaces and it will be easier to follow people who take classes if someone gets sick.
“There is a huge difference between a” gym “like a 40,000 square foot facility and a 1,000 square foot Pilates studio,” Geisler told CNN.
Mathew said that gyms with large numbers of people entering and leaving the building “are likely to be a huge health hazard.” “
“You can imagine in a gym, if you just track people down from weight to weight, if one person is infected, it can infect three or four people around them, and then the chain begins,” said Mathew.
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