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Doing All You Can Do to Safely Re-Open a Club Amid COVID-19

By: Bruce Carter

Bruce Carter

Never before have most clubs in the entire country been forced to close out of safety for its members and staff. It’s an unprecedented situation that is almost hard to believe.

Yet, as with most things, time heals and so clubs are starting to re-open. Questions abound on what a club can do to make things safer, and yet, still take steps to get operating again as a profitable enterprise. Since this is a new situation, there are not “tried and true” methods on what to do, but what follows are a number of things that are a consensus of what most clubs will do regarding their physical facilities.

It should be noted that COVID-19 is a “new” virus, yet pandemic viruses have come and gone, some with far more devasting effects than others. The infamous “black plaque” in the 1300s left 350 million dead. The Spanish Flu in 1918 – 1921 affected a third of the world’s population with between 50 – 100 million deaths.

Even the great Babe Ruth was not exempt. In 1918, he was a 23-year-old pitcher in spring training, and because the Red Sox had lost so many players to signing up for WWI, they called up Babe Ruth. As players started getting sick from the Spanish Flu (there are pictures of baseball players wearing masks while at bat in games), so Babe Ruth was asked to pitch and hit… and the rest is history, except for one thing. Babe Ruth also got the Spanish Flu and was close to death, but he recovered.

One thing history shows is that, after such pandemics, things eventually get back to normal. The question is “when.” But, it can be assumed that, post COVID-19, clubs will eventually get back to they way they were but with more consistent and extensive cleaning and sanitation practices.

The Federal government has designated three phases for things to get back to “normal.” The reason we are addressing this is because the question arises: Should all future design and renovations be adjusted to meet current distancing guidelines? Should everything be designed to be 6′ apart? This would include treadmills, group exercise class participation (including spin), check-in points, toilets, urinals, lockers, sinks, showers, free weight benches, dumbbell accessibility (should the 20-pound dumbbells be 6′ away from the 25-pound dumbbells?), etc. If this were to be the case, then the business model of just about every health club would change dramatically. Clubs would be at least twice the size (with associated build-out costs), with much higher expenses such as rents (or debt), utilities, cleaning and maintenance. Other options would be to just have spacing requirements marked on floors, so someone wanting to get to the 25-pound dumbbells next to someone already getting 20-pound dumbbells would wait 6′ from the rack until the other person cleared away. Other possibilities include providing less equipment and serving fewer members. Obviously, these options are complicated and far from being practical. Therefore, for now, it would not be feasible for health clubs to do any future planning with such social distancing variables.

For a reference point, here is a summary of the Federal Government’s three phases to “getting back to normal.”

  1. Phase One – Vulnerable groups will still be asked to shelter in place, and non-vulnerable people will be expected to avoid groups of 10 or more people unless they can do social distancing. Sit-down restaurants, movie theaters, sports stadiums and churches will be allowed to re-open but only if there is social distancing inside. Gyms will also be allowed to re-open, but in addition to having social distancing, they will have to follow strict sanitation guidelines. When the number of new COVID-19 cases again trends down 14 straight days, and there is no evidence of a rebound in cases, a State will be able to enter Phase Two of re-opening.
  2. Phase Two – Again, vulnerable groups will shelter in place. Meanwhile, others will be asked to avoid groups of 50 or more unless social distancing can be observed. Places like movie theaters and gyms that re-opened in Phase One will be able to operate with only moderate social distancing. When the number of new COVID-19 cases trends down 14 straight days again, and there is again no evidence of a rebound in cases, a State will be able to enter Phase Three of re-opening.
  3. Phase Three – Vulnerable groups should finally be able to go out in public, but they will still be asked to use caution and minimize gatherings where social distancing is not practical. People will also once again be able to stand around in groups at bars. Places like churches and gyms that re-opened in phase one will be able to operate without worrying much about social distancing.

So, clubs will re-open, go through strong social distancing guidelines, then to a lesser degree, get back to normal. That is the hope and I think the best way to plan. Here are some general things clubs can do to make their environments safer. Some of these require more time, dollars and space to implement:

1. The first thing is obvious and that is the concept of “social distancing.” This is clearly a strong action needed when re-opening. The separation of equipment will happen in a variety of ways. Many clubs do not have the luxury of space or storage to achieve the 6′ spacing with all of their equipment. So, the next best thing will be to separate pieces as much as possible with the goal of 6′ apart or have different pieces not available for use. Cardio equipment such as treadmills may result in every other unit either being unplugged, cordoned off or “not in use.” In addition, some States are mandating that only so many members can be in a club at the same time, such as five people per 1,000 square feet.

Normally, check-in at a club can easily result in people close to one another, so clubs are adding a check-in station if their systems and equipment allows them to do so. More importantly, clubs are marking the floor with 6′ apart markers so people will know to wait a safe distance away from a person who is checking in, then they can move forward in a social distancing manner. The proper signage will be necessary to help implement such a practice.

In locker rooms, where possible, a toilet, sink or shower adjacent to another would be closed off. Similarly, only lockers at a safe distance from one another would be available for use. Others would be closed off. Some clubs have decided to close off the locker section.

Along with social distancing is the wearing of masks and gloves but especially masks. Many clubs are requiring that all staff wear masks, and some clubs are requiring members to do so, also. There may also be State or even local mandates requiring the use of masks. Initially, as things get back open, the more masks worn the better. As one owner of a large, well-established club said: They are doing everything possible, because they do not want to be “that club” where many might contract the disease.

2. The second thing is also very obvious. Whatever cleaning stations (hand sanitizer and wipes) you previously had, plan to double or triple the amount. Make them very visible. Ideally, use hospital strength sanitizers or the more well-known brands, for there have been numerous cases where some sanitizers are of a low-quality and only marginally effective.

Display posters promoting hand-washing (look on www.WHO.int). Surfaces (e.g. equipment, desks, lockers, etc.) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards) need to be wiped with disinfectant regularly. Obviously, members also need to take a strong role in this. Make sure all areas are extra clean.

3. The third thing is to minimize the touching of areas such as doors, faucets, toilet handles, etc. Clubs are adding products such as foot-operated door openers and hands-free door openers. Consider also switching out faucets, toilets and urinals to touchless units which can be retrofitted to existing units. Concurrently, clubs are taking a visible all-out approach of having staff regularly cleaning equipment and any other constantly-touched surfaces. According to research, which is still progressing, the amount of time the virus stays on surfaces is as follows:

  • Metal – 5 days;
  • Wood – 4 days;
  • Plastic – 2-3 days;
  • Stainless Steel – 2 – 3 days;
  • Cardboard – 24 hours;
  • Aluminum – 2 – 8 hours;
  • Glass – up to 5 days; and,
  • Paper – from a few minutes to 5 days.

Therefore, continually cleaning and washing of hands is a must. Some items which would be hard to keep clean (such as bands, small handheld weights, mats, etc.) are being removed from the floor, minimizing what a person can touch while working out. On another note, obviously, water fountains should only be used for filling bottles.

4. The fourth thing is more long-term and that is to design with antimicrobial materials. Most building finishes can be found with antimicrobial materials, such as laminates, paint, metal finishes, rubber flooring, carpet and porcelain tile. Fortunately, today’s manufacturers are already integrating antimicrobial technology in interior design elements including faucets, window shades, paint and door hardware, applying coatings that work to keep them cleaner from multiplying bacteria. These types of materials are popular in the healthcare sector and will now start to find their way more into the health club sector. Ask your design or building professional to use such products, and if you do, it is recommended that you let members know that you have made such choices to add to their comfort level.

5. The fifth thing is to improve air quality by keeping you HVAC systems efficient. In most commercial buildings, indoor air is made up of about 25% of outside air. The rest is recirculated and filtered, meaning it’s already been breathed by other occupants. If indoor air is not regularly exchanged, it can actually contain greater levels of pollutants than outside air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, experts recommend at least 20 – 30 air exchanges per hour for health clubs.

Another thing clubs will be adding are Infrared Fever Screening Systems (IFSS). A member or guest entering a club will be screened for elevated body temperature. If a fever is detected, the person will be told of their fever and asked not to enter the club.

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Whatever you do, make it a point to create signage to communicate and educate members on cleaning and sanitation practices in the club. This would include all that they need to do and all that you, the club, is doing to keep everyone safe. An example would be indicating pre-use and post-use wipe down protocol on all equipment and any items regularly touched.

Clubs have always taken on the role in a community as a place where people can go to improve their lives. Health and wellbeing are a club’s foundation. Obviously, clubs have always wanted to achieve a “safe” environment, but now more than ever, in the history of health clubs, there is the need for an entirely new level of safety. Club owners and staff will be up to the task, because they understand their role of being there for people to make things better in their life.

As published on clubindustry.com, July 2020.