Owners of closed gyms warn time is short for their survival
Health and fitness clubs in New Jersey have now been closed for more than 20 weeks due to the pandemic, leaving an industry sector that employs 55,000 New Jerseyans on the brink as creditors grow impatient over unpaid bills.
Leslie Adelman Banks, managing partner of Fitness & Wellness, which operates nine centers affiliated with hospitals, said at a state Senate hearing Thursday that the closures are causing serious physical and mental health concerns for residents who rely on gyms for fun, stress relief and overall well-being.
“The worst one that I’ve experienced yet is a member that came to us because we helped her maintain her health,” Banks said. “And she wrote us a letter this week saying: ‘My health has seriously deteriorated since March, and I now have to get my affairs in order, and I’m sorry to say I need to cancel my membership because I can’t leave my husband strapped with having to maintain or take care of it because I will not be here.’ And that is the saddest.”
Gyms may not survive, as well. Kevin Johnson, owner of Team85 Fitness & Wellness, said he has invested over $50 million in its Bordentown campus but is considering bankruptcy or permanent closure.
“The financial damages that I’ve had to date, we cannot survive in this manner,” Johnson said.
Whenever he’s asked about reopening gyms, which is often, Gov. Phil Murphy says he has sympathy but that it’s not yet safe.
Retro Fitness chief executive officer Andrew Alfano said sympathy is not enough and that the situation is dire, noting franchise owners permanently closed nine of the 61 Retro clubs in New Jersey since March.
“These are people that are not losing their businesses. These are people who will never financially recover,” Alfano said.
Alfano said gyms are now open in 47 of 50 states and wonders what New Jersey knows that most of the others don’t. They also remain closed in New York and North Carolina.
Gym owners say they’re seen as a pariah right now – unfairly still ordered closed by Murphy and not trusted by customers fearful of the novel coronavirus. The solution for both reopening and rebuilding a client base starts the same way: Convincing people they’re clean and safe.
Kevin McHugh, chief operating officer of The Atlantic Club, said gyms have the needed sanitization equipment on hand and are ready to reopen.
“There’s no business that’s a safer place to be than a health club when they do all the protocols,” McHugh said.
Craig Benson, a former New Hampshire governor now on the board of Planet Fitness, said just one in 135,000 members are known to have come down with COVID in the states where the chain has reopened.
“We were cleaning before it was cool, and we were cleaning because our members asked us to the clean and they want to come to a clean, safe environment,” Benson said.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said that’s great – but hardly universal.
“There’s a lot of clean places, but there are also a lot of clients that get in and go on machines and get off, and they don’t care whether they’ve wiped things down or not,” Ruiz said.
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said he hopes the hearing speeds up the opening of gyms. He said it’s become a running joke of sorts: The Senate fiscal recovery panel takes testimony, the Murphy administration listens to the hearing and then works to reopen that industry.
Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, said the COVID-19 infection curve has been flattened and that, by and large, people and businesses take the steps needed of them for reopening.
“We all pray and we hope and we’re really pulling for every company that’s now looking for a vaccine, but what happens if we never get there?” Oroho said. “We have to learn to live with this responsibly.”