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

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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