Michigan gym owners: Keeping us closed amid COVID harms public health

Michigan gym owners fighting for their livelihood amid a continued closure orderfrom Gov. Gretchen Whitmer argue they could reopen safely and help fight COVID-19 at the same time. They point to research showing that good health is a key to fighting the virus. (Shutterstock photo)

Sept. 2: Michigan gyms, theaters, bowling alleys may finally be able to reopen soon

LANSING — Michigan gym owners fighting for their livelihood amid a continued closure order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer argue they could reopen safely – and help fight COVID-19 at the same time.

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to prevent underlying medical conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure that can make COVID-19 more deadly, Alyssa Tushman, owner of the three Burn Fitness gyms in metro Detroit, said Wednesday in testimony before the Michigan Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“This is a very unhealthy state and a very unhealthy country, and it’s part of the reason we’re not doing well with COVID,” she said, urging the governor to lift an order that has kept gyms in lower Michigan closed for more than four months. 

“Our effort is not partisan. It is about human beings and human life and human health. We will do anything to get back in the game so we can help prevent future deaths.” 

Whitmer and her medical advisers fear the coronavirus could spread quickly in indoor fitness centers where patrons sweat and share equipment. And there have been at least some exposures at northern Michigan gyms the governor allowed to reopen June 15. 

But the governor’s ongoing closure order has other public health implications for Michigan, gym owners contend.

The state is fat, there’s no denying that, and health experts consider obesity an underlying condition that can lead to higher hospitalization rates among COVID-19 patients. 

One of three Michiganders met the definition for obesity in 2019, ranking 31st among all states, according to the United Health Foundation. Survey data show that roughly 24 percent of Michiganders reported low levels of physical activity last year. 

Whitmer closed gyms in March as she ordered a statewide economic shutdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has so far contributed to 6,170 deaths in Michigan. With case counts down significantly since peak in late April, the governor has allowed most businesses to reopen so long as they implement new safety protocols for staff and customers. 

Gym owners participated in a state workgroup that recommended reopening policies to Whitmer in late May, including social distancing rules, cleaning protocols and other measures to “keep our members safe and facilities clean,” said Bryan Rief, who is co-owner of a company that operates 44 Planet Fitness gyms in Michigan. 

Some gyms have pledged additional safety efforts. If allowed to reopen, Planet Fitness facilities in Michigan would also require all members to wear masks while working out, Rief told lawmakers. If they won’t wear a mask or cannot because of a medical condition, the club will freeze billing or cancel their account, he said. 

“We don’t want them coming in and working out without a mask on,” Rief said, noting that blanket policy will avoid confusion over enforcement, which businesses are expected to handle. “We can’t expect our staff and hourly workers, mostly 20-somethings, to be able to police that.”

Whitmer allowed fitness centers to reopen in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula on June 15, but her continued closure order for the rest of the state has sparked federal lawsuits, a Capitol protest and heavy lobbying from the fitness industry, whose owners fear financial ruin. 

Administration officials met with gym owners and advocates on Friday, but the governor has not signaled any plans to change her executive orders, which are at least loosely based on a phased economic reopening plan developed with health and business leaders. 

“Gov. Whitmer is continuing to monitor cases and make decisions based on the best data and science,” spokesperson Tiffany Brown told Bridge. “As she has said all along, she will adjust as necessary when it comes to reengaging Michigan’s economy safely.”

While fighting COVID-19 is a top public health concern, closing gyms across most of Michigan for more than four months is concerning too, Tushman argued in committee.

“This has been a really devastating time, of course financially, but emotionally as well,” she said. “Our members reach out to us all the time.”

Early data suggests physical activity dropped significantly across the globe in March and April after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, one day after Michigan confirmed its first two cases. 

Within a month of that declaration, accelerometer data showed smartphone users across the world were taking an average of 27 percent fewer steps per day, according to a recent study led by researchers at the University of California. Physical activity in the United States did not drop as quickly as in countries including Italy or Spain, but it fell faster than the United Kingdom and Japan.

"Because prolonged social distancing is considered to contain infection, it will be important to gauge adherence to these measures and their effect on other aspects of health, such as physical activity," researchers wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 

That's not to say Americans — or Michiganders — have stopped working out. Bike and kayak sales have exploded amid the pandemic, leaving many Michigan shops with little inventory. Many fitness trainers are offering digital classes, some clubs have opened outdoor alternatives.

Meanwhile, visits to parks, public beaches, marinas, dog parks, plazas and public gardens in Michigan are up more than 380 percent over previous baselines, according to mobility trend data from Google.  And home fitness equipment sales have also skyrocketed, jumping 130 percent year-over-year in March, according to one national market research firm. 

Even if gyms reopen, it's unlikely all workout buffs will return. Nationwide, less than 20 percent of adults say they feel comfortable going to the gym, according to Morning Consult survey results released this week. About 35 percent of those polled said they were unlikely to feel comfortable going to the gym anytime in the next six months.

“Your biggest competition is not each other at this point,” state Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, told gym owners on Wednesday in committee. “It’s people buying home gym equipment and never returning.”

Hollier, former director of government affairs for the Michigan Fitness Foundation, said he’s “incredibly sensitive to getting gyms open.”  But he participated in the workgroup that developed reopening recommendations for Whitmer and said there was disagreement about enacting blanket policies for diverse fitness centers that range from big box gyms to small yoga studios. 

But state Rep. Matt Hall, the Marshall Republican who chairs the coronavirus oversight committee, argued that “biases” in the Whitmer administration have slowed the reopening of gyms even though the facilities could, as he put it, “help people reduce the serious health outcomes of covid-19 by being in shape.”

A federal judge last month struck down Whitmer’s gym closure order, ruling the administration did not present enough scientific evidence to justify the policy. But a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned that ruling in a decision that offered sweeping support for the governor’s executive authority during the pandemic. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s top medical executive, said Tuesday that a small number of recent COVID-19 “outbreaks” have been linked to gyms, but she did not specify where those facilities were located or how many patrons were infected. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for more information. 

A gym in Traverse City, where fitness centers have been allowed to operate for more than a month, last week informed members that someone may have carried COVID-19 inside the facility before an outdoor workout. It closed for sanitization but has since reopened.

There have been two other known “exposures” associated with gyms in Grand Traverse County,  Health Director Wendy Hirschenberger told Bridge. 

In one case, an asymptomatic player on a semi-professional baseball team tested positive after working out in a team facility. In the second case, a person who tested positive had worked out at a local gym but had not been in close contact with other patrons, she said. 

"In both instances, the gyms really were doing the kinds of things necessary to keep people safe,” Hirschenberger said. “They're sanitizing. A lot of our gyms are doing outdoor classes or really limiting class sizes so they can social distance."

Nonetheless, Hirschenberger said she is still concerned about the risk of COVID transmission at gyms, where patrons tend to breathe heavily without masks, especially if those facilities get more crowded once summer ends and outdoor recreation opportunities are limited. 

"So far it's gone well, but I would say once we hit fall and winter, when people tend to do more indoor gym-type things, that's when we'll probably see the true potential risk or the true results, she said. 

Gym transmission has been rare at Planet Fitness clubs in Ohio that reopened in early June, according to Rief, who owns six gyms in that state. Three members and one staffer have tested positive in the past two months, triggering a “comprehensive” response plan at those facilities, he told lawmakers.

“Transmissions that are taking place in our clubs is statistically zero,” Rief said.

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 6:56am

The lock-downs have absolutely NOTHING to do with public health and EVERYTHING to do with inculcating into the public as much as possible unquestioning subservience to government "orders".

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 9:51am

Ugh...Yeah...if only we had some way of comparing states that have taken aggressive lock-down measures to states that have re-opened...

Kevin Grand
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 5:27pm

Europe didn't do so bad.

Sweden specifically comes to mind.

And they DIDN'T lock down...

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 9:24am

Sweden has a death rate higher than many countries who implemented a lock down, with the elderly and nursing homes being most impacted. Also, remaining open did not shield Sweden from economic damage. They are expecting the Swedish economy to shrink at the same rate as Denmark, a country that did implement a lock down and has a significantly lower death rate because of it.

Kimberly Browning
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 8:38am

I’ve actually become way healthier during quarantine as I’ve had more time to designate to my health and focus on my eating and habits now that I work from home. It’s been quite easy and less stress I didn’t use the gym as much as I should have anyway. And exercise is not the best way to lose weight. Maybe to help maintain and good for cardiovascular. It definitely doesn’t hurt but is not the main habit for weight loss.

Marty T
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:32am

No kidding, I've been doing much more lawn and garden work outside, cooking healthier meals, and working on home tasks that were long overdue. Gyms and now even camps for kids are prime breeding grounds for coronavirus. I really can't see how schools can open in-person this month.

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 8:52am

High school student was working part-time minimum wage at a gym before the shutdown. Now he has been making about $3k a month since, no big bills, living at home with parents. Guess he'll have money for college, but it seems wrong that some people are making so much doing nothing and others, including teens and adults, are "essential" workers, working full-time, making minimum wage. There needs to be some sanity.

Larry Good
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 10:06am

A second affected industry testified at the same hearing -- bowling centers. The proprietors who spoke noted that the risk of spreading the virus from sweat is low given the pace of bowling, that centers have excellent air filtration systems because they're needed to maintain lane conditions, and that the industry has clear protocols nationally to minimize risk. They said they're not aware of any outbreaks nationally that started at a bowling center. Given this is a seasonal industry (most of their revenue comes from Sept-April leagues), they've reached the point where they will be in economic peril if they must remain closed much longer.

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:35am

Oh well. The virus doesn't care. Anyone who bowls knows there is always a heavy stale smoke smell, so not so sure about the ventilation comment.

middle of the mit
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 1:54pm

Listen to the concern that is happening. These gym owners are so concerned about the obese, diabetic and others who have underlying health problems that they want those same people who probably never went to a gym anyway, to go out in the middle of a pandemic and put themselves at risk to the COVID so they can get healthy so they aren't susceptible to the COVID.

Better idea? Pure Michigan. Why go into a stuffy building and run in place on a treadmill when you can take a walk around the neighborhood or a hike in the woods. Better scenery, unless you go to the gym to see people working out in spandex.

Major league baseball said they could do it. They can't. Bars and restaurants said they could do it. They couldn't.

This is why there should be NO EMPLOYER IMMUNITY.

If you are going to act like you know more than the experts..........you should be held accountable for being better than the experts.

If it is nothing more than an overblown hoax, what are you worried about being liable for?

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:37am

These are also the same people who cater to people on dangerous steroids, so much for caring about public health. So much violence results from roid-rage.

A Yooper
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 3:58pm

I concur wholeheartedly with you. Well voiced. Spot on!!

lifelong michigander
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 5:25pm

This gym lockdown would be easier to take, if gyms in the lower upper were closed also. My understanding is the workout facilities in that region are doing landmark business. This is what happens when you have a governor that plays favorites. No hard questions are being asked about this situation. No one knows what the governor's standard is for gyms reopening other than " I said so".

middle of the mit
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 1:19pm

You might want to take that up with the Republican legislators that represent us up here. They are the ones that wanted all these different standards for areas that have less cases. I just wonder what they will do when we become the orange and red areas.

Will you like it if you are no longer allowed up here to work out at our gyms during the weekend?

lifelong michigander
Sun, 08/02/2020 - 11:14am

The circumstance still lies in the governor's hands. If the logic is heavy breathing in a gym is dangerous, then it is equally as dangerous in the northern locales.

lifelong michigander
Sun, 08/02/2020 - 12:49pm

One further thing about gym closures. Our governor is obviously a vindictive person, even if statewide we go to phase five, the governor will omit gyms. ( due to the lawsuit filed in federal court) As if to say, "that will show you".

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:40am

Vindictive? Have you seen the behavior of the GOP legislature????????

middle of the mit
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 6:23pm

[[[The circumstance still lies in the governor's hands. If the logic is heavy breathing in a gym is dangerous, then it is equally as dangerous in the northern locales.]]]

Think population density. Also, most people up here don't use gyms because they do physical labor, and we have 10s of thousands of acres of State land on which to hike and run. Not to mention our lakes. Most people up here aren't sitting behind a desk all day.

[[[[One further thing about gym closures. Our governor is obviously a vindictive person, even if statewide we go to phase five, the governor will omit gyms. ( due to the lawsuit filed in federal court) As if to say, "that will show you".]]]





Does that make Gov Abbot of Texas, Gov Ducey of AZ and the White House as per the link above "Vindictive"?

I guess so!!!

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:39am

Middle of the mit, EXCELLENT response.

Sun, 08/02/2020 - 6:59am

I call B.S. I understand that gyms are a business and can probably open safely. However, don't use people's health as justification. If you have a floor and a sidewalk or road, you have a gym. My exercise classes have been canceled now since March. There are thousands, yes thousands, of online workout videos, from easy yoga to ball-busting P90X, to do right at home. I just finished 21-Day Fix from Autumn Calabrese and started 80-Day-Obsession. If you're concerned about not being able to go to the gym, turn on a devise. You know have one.

A Yooper
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 4:05pm

OMG...workout spaces and locker rooms are disgustingly filthy and always has been. The YMCA in Escanaba men’s locker room always has open lockers with trunks etc. hanging in them that belong to whomever. Kids rodding around in dressing/shower areas making the floor sipping wet. No way they are going to keep that place clean in this epidemic. It was a mess before.

lifelong michigander
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 11:08am

These comments are typical of people who have no idea of how gyms are important. These are the same type of people , who would walk ten steps to the locale donut shop, and exclaim " what a workout", and then eat a dozen donuts.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 9:14pm

[[[These are the same type of people , who would walk ten steps to the locale donut shop, and exclaim " what a workout", and then eat a dozen donuts.]]]

Are you referring to the people this gym owner is referring to?

[[[Exercise is one of the most effective ways to prevent underlying medical conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure that can make COVID-19 more deadly, Alyssa Tushman, owner of the three Burn Fitness gyms in metro Detroit, said Wednesday in testimony before the Michigan Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic.]]]

LoL!! But she is SO concerned about- what did you say about them again? They walk ten steps to the donut shop and claim " what a work out"?

What genuine concern! I.....I ..............I've never seen anything like it!!!

lifelong michigander
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 3:48pm

Response to middle of the mit. I am so glad for the extra posts re: gym closings, but they are all at least three to four months old. Nothing in the midwest. Nice try.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 8:34pm

I don't try dude. I do. They are months old because the orders are months old. And even if they have been rescinded, that last link..........this one right here.


White House suggests closing all gyms, limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer in Clark County

by Cody MillerThursday, July 16th 2020

Ha ha ha ha!!!

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 9:02pm

Also, they aren't in the midwest because they are in areas that think they can do what you are thinking, but realized they couldn't and started walking things back to what we are doing. And the rest? Their cases are going uP!






Also, why is promoting physical exercise outside not knowing, what is it you said "how important gyms are." ? How did people ever exist in a healthy way without an indoor gym over the last ...............how many thousands of years have gyms not been a thing?

Nice try!

Chuck D.
Tue, 08/04/2020 - 7:01pm

Shutting down the gyms has everything to do with ORANGE MAN BAD and nothing to do with safety.
I'm not voting for Trump, we are still considering ourselves democrats for other reasons, but no way we are voting for Biden.
We're one of the few families in our circle of friends who are refusing to wear masks and we get the distinct impression that we are watching our friends literally lose their minds over all of this nonsense.
My wife went out and bought an AR15 and a thousand rounds of ammunition, and honestly, I am glad she did because the world seems to be going crazy around us.
What are we? Definitely not libertarian. I guess we're not really democrats anymore since we aren't eating up this garbage like our friends are.
Do we need a new political party for democrat expats who don't want to be called republicans? If we go to the gun range to practice with our new gun and tell people we are democrats but think biden is a child molester with dementia, will they accept us despite our opposition to converting to republicanism?

lifelong michigander
Wed, 08/05/2020 - 2:31pm

re: middle of the mit comment: The dozen donut eaters are probably people like you who don't have a clue. Or are you the dozen donut eater. Probably so. I can see the donut powder fly. Ho Ho the he.

Fri, 09/04/2020 - 11:24am

I've never needed a gym to stay in shape. The pandemic allowed me more time to focus on staying healthy. I started riding my bike more frequently I steadily increased the length of my riding until I hit the 20 mile mark during my last workout. I celebrated the beginning of September by burning 962 calories during a ride that lasted 1 hour and 35 minutes. For me, gyms are waste of time and money and I view them mostly as an exercise in vanity.