News Story

Throttled-Down Gyms Say State Has The Wrong Outbreak Target

Officials haven’t shown updated evidence

Michigan gyms and fitness centers were ordered by the state to scale back operations this week, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, even as some medical professionals warn such a move is counterproductive. Fitness advocates say the risk of infection at their facilities is negligible.

Fitness centers had been shut down for the six months before Labor Day, under earlier orders issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Department of Health and Human Services. Under the latest order (effective Nov. 18), the facilities can keep their doors open, but with occupancy limited to 25% of their usual capacity. They must also impose 12 feet of social distancing between patrons and cancel all group activities.

Alyssa Tushman, a board member of the Michigan Fitness Club Association, believes the new order is excessive and unnecessary, and may be a prelude to another shutdown.

“Gyms aren’t spreading COVID,” Tushman said, “We’re spreading health.”

“There is so much fear out there,” she said. “You are so much safer if you remain healthy. Staying home leads to depression, overeating. This is so unfair. Grouping gyms in with bars and restaurants (which have been ordered closed for all but takeout service) is stupid.”

The new order, issued by Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, is scheduled to expire Dec. 8. But Tushman fears a repeat of the open-ended shutdown that began in March.

At the onset of the pandemic, “We were tricked,” she said. “We thought it was going to be 30-60 days. Instead it was six months.”

Tushman, who co-owns three Burn Fitness centers in Southeast Michigan, said the precautions operators have taken to reopen and allay the anxiety of their clientele have been extraordinary and expensive.

Exercise equipment has been cordoned off to enforce social distancing, and sanitation and air purification regimes installed. Burn Fitness purchased electrostatic sprayers for sanitation at each of its facilities, at a cost of $3,000 each, she said.

“We wanted people to be comfortable, and I think they are,” Tushman said.

The fitness industry has been trying to head off a new wave of shutdowns by citing reports showing that properly run gyms pose a very low risk of COVID infection. Since Michigan facilities were allowed to reopen on Labor Day, 100 clubs that are members of the Michigan Fitness Club Association have recorded 1.35 million customer visits. A total of 26 infections have occurred among those customers, whether associated with a gym visit or not.

An earlier analysis of nationwide data found a positive COVID test rate of 0.002% out of nearly 50 million gym visitors. Last week, the Chicago Medical Society last urged local public health authorities to exempt gyms and fitness centers from proposed new COVID restrictions, citing the health benefits of regular exercise.

But gym owners and their patrons fear that increasing COVID caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths may soon lead to more shutdowns.

Michigan public health officials have not identified fitness centers as significant generators of new COVID infections.

According to the state health department’s website, personal services providers, which include barbershops, hair salons and gyms, are linked to four recent outbreaks and three earlier ones . (An outbreaks are defined as two or more infections.)

Health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin also pointed to research to be published in the journal Nature. Researchers used cellphone data to track visits to various locations from March 1 to May 2, and it indicated that gym visits were related to some COVID infections, though fewer than bar-restaurants and some other retail operations. Sutfin did not respond to an emailed question about whether additional restrictions, including a total shutdown, were being contemplated for Michigan fitness centers.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.