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Washington feels relief but Oregonians must wait before reopening gyms; local owner flexes data study

COURTESY: PLANET FITNESS - Gyms in Oregon remain closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but a Planet FItness franchisee is making her case to Governor Brown to allow opening for as little as 10 percent capacity.

As Washington State Governor Jay Inslee cracked open the door on that state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, Jan. 5, Oregon gym owners were left waiting for the day they can reopen.

Inslee offered a small resumption of activities starting Jan. 11, including some gym activity and concerts for groups less than 10.

Inslee divided the state into new phases by region, rather than county, and said in Phase 2 that gyms could have some one-on-one sessions.

Nick Streuli, Inslee's executive director, external affairs, said appointment-based fitness would be allowed in gyms with no more than one person per 500 square feet. He called that "a little bit of movement in Phase 1." In phase 2, they could return to 25% capacity.

Washington has already extended its shutdown of restaurants, theaters, gyms and all indoor gatherings from mid-December to Jan. 11. The last time Oregon gyms were open was Nov. 16, 2020.

Phase 1 is the most high-risk, and no regions in Washington have made it into Phase 2 yet.

The Oregon Health Authority has said the reason gyms should remain closed — not even open at reduced capacity in high-risk counties — is that people breathe heavier while working out, which spreads the virus farther, and that a mask that gets wet from sweat is less protective, allowing more virus aerosols through the fabric.

STOCK PHOTO COURTSEY: PLANET FITNESS - Gym owners have argued that they can reopen safely and have become experts at social distancing in a commercial setting. Local Planet Fitness owner Kalpana Lupano (not pictured) says "We want to work with the governor, we're not trying to defy the governor's orders, but there's got to be a better solution versus us being completely shut down."

Currently, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is policing the gyms. Oregon OSHA recently fined four Courthouse Club Fitness gyms in Lane County a total of $90,000 for staying open in a two-week freeze and defying Governor Brown's COVID-19 order.

Kalpana Lubrano, co-owner of seven Planet Fitness gyms in Oregon and two in Vancouver, Washington. Has been vocal in appealing to Oregon Governor Kate Brown to roll back her restrictions on fitness centers. Jan. 1 came and went, and they remain closed as of Jan 6.

Lubrano pointed out that only five states (Oregon, Washington, California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania) have closed their fitness centers. She added that there had been more than 1.2 million Planet Fitness member check-ins in Oregon through Nov. 30, with .00119% later testing positive for COVID-19. No positive cases originated at Planet Fitness.

"There's just no data proving that the virus is being spread in the gyms," referring to a University of Oregon study of Colorado data. (See sidebar) "There is zero correlation between gym, fitness centers and COVID-19 spread."

COURTESY: PLANET FITNESS - Kalpana Lubrano, co-owner of seven Planet Fitness gyms in Oregon and two in Vancouver, Washington.  Has been vocal in appealing to Oregon Governor Kate Brown to roll back her restrictions on fitness centers. January 1 came and went and they remain closed as of Jan 6,

She is frustrated that New York City Governor Cuomo allowed gyms to reopen.

With many Americans suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and lung disease, Lubrano believes gyms should be classed as an essential business that needs to be open.

Oregon is also one of 13 states that require wearing a mask 100% of the time when you're working out in a fitness facility.

"We're 100% shut down, so we have zero revenue coming in. And we're asking the governor to let us reopen in extreme risk with limited capacity. We're saying, 'Can we be open at 10 or 15% capacity at extreme risk? Because otherwise, I don't know, when we'll achieve the metrics that are set for the state.'"

STOCK PHOTO COURTSEY: PLANET FITNESS - One local gym owner, Kalpana Lupano, says "We want to work with the governor, we're not trying to defy the governor's orders, but there's got to be a better solution versus us being completely shut down."

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As subscription businesses, gyms are in a tough spot when forced to close completely. They must stop collecting subscriptions. But even if they are open at reduced capacity, they can start collecting money again, no matter how few people show up.

Planet Fitness is known as an affordable gym. Members pay as little as $10 a month, or more usually $21.99 a month.

"We're don't have pools. We don't have saunas. We don't have all the additional stuff. We were an open box," said Lubrano. She added they had done all they can to operate in a COVID-safe fashion.

"We have a 95-page training manual that we put together for our staff. We've trained our staff. We have temperature checks. We have air filtration….We spent between $65,000 and $75,000 per facility to upgrade and make sure that facilities can stay open."

"We want to work with the governor, we're not trying to defy the governor's orders, but there's got to be a better solution versus us being completely shut down."

The franchise holder says she got no Paycheck Protection Program money from the government.

"We got nothing, so we're asking for a lifeline to be open at 10% capacity because we know we can do it safely. We've been doing it at 25%."

A 20,000-square-foot gym has a capacity between 275 and 300. Between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., members could work out and still have the capacity.

"In Oregon, at 29% of the state that's considered overweight. I get letters every day from members just begging us to reopen. They need our facilities to stay mentally and physically fit."

SIDEBAR

Different risks

Trade group the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) commissioned the University of Oregon's Consulting Group (OCG) to study the association between health club attendance and COVID-19 cases using Colorado data as a proxy. It found "health clubs do not pose the same risk as other venues like bars and restaurants."

To determine this outcome, University of Oregon researchers examined the relationship between gym attendance and Colorado COVID-19 case data using observational and statistical analytical methods.

"If we look at Colorado's record of a self-reported outbreak — events in which two or more people have contracted COVID — gyms haven't made the list up to this point, but bars and restaurants certainly have," said Callum Kuo, OCG president. "What if we investigate further and compare what we know about gyms in Colorado?"

By examining the correlation between weekly gym attendance data with the following week of positive COVID-19 rates, researchers found a non-statistically significant correlation between COVID-19 case rates and gym attendance.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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