Trying to stay fit in the middle of a pandemic can be a challenge. But the Planet Fitness chain said it has taken great strides to prove that it is indeed fit to remain open – and that it behooves everyone to try and get into shape.
“Physical fitness plays a really critical role in combating this virus,” Planet Fitness COO Joe Pepe told the Business Journal. “We’ve all heard the news that people with a comorbidity who contract Covid can have a more dire outcome.”
Indeed, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 94% of U.S. deaths from Covid-19 were also associated with other conditions, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
Pepe’s comments echoed those of Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau, who in July told CNBC: “If you think about it, gyms are really a part of the health care delivery system, and to shut us down is counterproductive. We really are part of the solution, not the problem.”
Pepe said that since reopening on June 17 – Planet Fitness was shut down like other fitness facilities in March – its clubs across Connecticut have had 1,685,059 total check-ins among 177,104 total members, with no evidence that Covid-19 has been transmitted in one of its clubs.
“We’ve had 11 cases where people tested positive within the 14-day (quarantine) period,” he said, “but there have been zero cases of someone contracting it in our system.”
Planet Fitness, based in Hampton, New Hampshire, operates clubs throughout the county, including in Danbury, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford, and Trumbull.
Gyms are “one of the lowest known providers of the spread,” Pepe said, pointing for further evidence to a Nov. 18 op-ed by former U.S. Deputy Surgeon General Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu published in the New York Daily News.
“Fitness plays a critical role in combating the virus and improving people’s overall physical and mental health,” Moritsugu wrote. Enumerating the comorbidities that “can cause complications and significantly increase the chances of hospitalization and death for those who contract Covid-19,” he said: “Regular physical activity can protect us from these conditions while helping us to fight the virus. You may not think you have the time to squeeze in a workout, but researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.”
Meanwhile, a nationwide poll published in August by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 53% of U.S. adults said their mental health had been negatively impacted by stress over the pandemic – up from 32% in March.
Whether those numbers will improve during the winter remains an open question. “Not everyone can work out at home,” Pepe said, “and you’re probably not going to be able to go outside for a long run very soon.”
In addition to guidelines mandated by the state government, Planet Fitness has undertaken a number of steps to protect clients and employees alike. “We tried to be proactive,” Pepe said. “We developed a 95-page reopening playbook, which includes various safety measures.”
In addition to mandatory face masks for staff and clientele, the chain requires temperature checks and the answering of a few health-related questions of anyone entering a facility; has installed electrostatic disinfectant systems to sanitize the space and equipment overnight; and conducts “walk-throughs” every 20 minutes to ensure that equipment is properly wiped down and to address any concerns.
The company also has added a new “Crowd Meter” feature to its free app, which allows members to monitor gym capacity – currently limited to 50% – in real time. The app can help members schedule their gym visits at less busy times to further achieve social distancing, Pepe said.
“We have 20,000 to 25,000-square-foot clubs with high ceilings, which also helps with ventilation concerns,” he said.
But as with so many business sectors, gyms have had a difficult 2020. Gold’s Gym filed for Chapter 11 in May – it was acquired by Berlin’s RSG Group GmbH in August for $100 million – while privately held 24 Hour Fitness chain also filed for Chapter 11 in June.
Planet Fitness itself saw its third-quarter revenue fall 36.8% to $105.4 million from the previous third quarter – which represented an improvement over the 77.9% year-over-year loss it recorded in the second quarter. Its stock, which sat at $88.04 on Feb. 20, had plunged to $27.54 by March 18; as of Dec. 14, it stood at $73.61.
While unable to say what the costs of implementing so many safety features has been, Pepe said they had been “significant,” noting that the electrostatic systems cost “well over $1,000” per store.
“But these are costs that we’re happy to undertake,” he said. “We’re not going to be cheap here.”
Indeed, the company is still offering membership fee freezes and outright cancellations at no charge for the time being.
And, while new memberships have not been what they were in 2019, they have been “steadily increasing as we get closer to a vaccine,” Pepe said. “People want to be fit.”