Nearly five months after being forced to shut because of COVID-19, a group of local health and fitness club owners called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health officials to evaluate their plans to reopen and operate their facilities safely.
The owners of Saw Mill Club in Mount Kisco, Club Fit in Briarcliff Manor and Jefferson Valley and a handful of other operators said Thursday that their industry has developed protocols that emphasize health and safety for patrons and employees.
“We strongly feel that our businesses are essential businesses to our local communities and New York State as well,” said Saw Mill Club President Rick Beusman during a press conference at its sister facility Saw Mill Club East. “The message is that health and fitness clubs are safe and essential. After five months of closure and a detailed plan for reopening, we’re simply asking Albany to tell us what their concerns are so that we can make any necessary adjustments that would allow us to open safely and prudently.”
Last week, Cuomo said that gyms and fitness centers would remain shuttered indefinitely, calling them “highly problematic.” Facilities that opened in other states have had to close because it was a source of infection, the governor argued.
But Bill Beck, president of Club Fit, said there’s no evidence that health clubs that adhere to social distancing, mandatory mask wearing and vigorous cleaning and disinfection have contributed to any community spread. Furthermore, the long-term closure of the clubs is contributing to multiple comorbidities that put people in greater health danger.
“Health clubs are part of the solution to this horrible pandemic,” Beck said. “People who live active, healthy lives have better outcomes from COVID-19 and most other diseases than those who don’t.”
Beusman, a board member of the New York State Fitness Alliance, a network of health and fitness club owners who have been collaborating this summer to address the issue, outlined the list of protocols that alliance members submitted to the state to ensure safety.
In addition to mandatory masks for all members and employees at all times, at least 50 percent of the fitness equipment would be removed; there would be reconfiguration of space to ensure proper social distancing; a reduction in attendance of fitness classes by at least 50 percent; HVAC and ventilation upgrades; additional staff to provide enhanced cleaning and disinfection; training for employees so they are well-versed in reminding patrons to follow guidelines; and requiring members to sign a social responsibility agreement.
“That plan is one of the most comprehensive plans submitted to the state for any industry in New York State,” Beusman said.
Furthermore, Beck said should there be anyone who visits a club who tests positive for COVID-19, it would be easy for contact tracers to track down everyone who was in the facility at a given time. Whenever a member enters a club, the time and date of their visit is documented. The contact information for each member is already known to the club.
Several local officials joined the health club owners calling for their plan to be evaluated by the state. State Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro) said the alliance’s plan isn’t meant to be confrontational but to save the operators’ businesses and to help the public stay healthy.
“They have put forth what they feel is a strong and meaningful plan and they’re looking for dialogue,” Harckham said. “They’re not demanding yes, no, now, today, tomorrow. This is about dialogue; this is about a constructive partnership as to how this industry can safely open up.”
Any plan would have to provide hard data demonstrating that indoor fitness centers can be operated safely, he added.
Beusman emphasized that the Fitness Alliance has no involvement in a lawsuit that was filed earlier this summer on behalf of numerous gym and fitness center owners against Cuomo and the state.
Mount Kisco Mayor Gina Picinich said the area’s health clubs are also important economically for their local communities and deserve a chance to make a case to the state.
“We ask that the state, specifically the Department of Health, take the time and focus in here on the importance of health and fitness and provide the essential guidance that’s necessary for a path forward for these organizations,” she said.
A 12-year Saw Mill Club member, Luann O’Brien, said the past five months have been painful for people, particularly older members who need the activity to help control high blood pressure, alleviate arthritis or maintain their mental well-being. The clubs also provide much-needed camaraderie.
“We understand the reticence and the concern the governor has,” O’Brien said. “We think it’s unfounded. We simply want to be able to work this out.”