States are re-opening in various phases, and some exercise facilities have opened their doors once again. For most states, gyms and fitness studios shuttered for months are now considering how to operate and attempt to recoup months of lost revenue while complying with strict social-distancing guidelines. Additionally, many states are seeing mandatory face covering orders for the first time.
The reality is that COVID-19 has altered the fitness landscape, perhaps for good. At a minimum, cleaning schedules, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and smaller class sizes may become the norm. When re-opening a physical space, consideration should be given to federal, state, and even local guidelines.
The Federal Plan “Opening Up American Again” advises that gyms can re-open in Phase One if they adhere to “strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.” The Federal Plan is fairly general, but states and localities have issued much more detailed guidelines. As states across the country re-open, there will likely be many more, and varied, guidelines to come.
Guidance: Cleaning and Disinfecting
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting specific to public spaces. Much like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)’s requirements discussed below, the CDC recommends creating and implementing a plan. That plan can include limited hours to allow for more cleaning time, “intermission” during business hours to allow for additional disinfection, or zone cleaning throughout the day.
As far as how to clean, if possible, use a product included on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. If unavailable, the CDC recommends diluting household bleach using 5 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water or alcohol solutions with at least 70%.
With heightened cleaning requirements, it is important to be certain employees are familiar with OSHA’s requirements on employee awareness of safe use of cleaning chemicals.
Guidance: Employee Safety
For more information on OSHA’s Guidance on Coronavirus, this article discusses how employers should be aware of multiple OSHA standards including OSHA’s standards on hazardous chemicals and personal protective equipment (PPE). Particularly, OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 requires you to develop an Infection Disease Preparedness and Response Plan and recommends measures to protect your workers, such as the use of PPE.
The CDC recommends the use of “cloth face coverings” for the general public and many states have now ordered mandatory use of masks in public when physical distancing is not possible. Check your state or local order to determine if there is an exercise exemption and, if so, if it applies to indoor facilities. PPE for gym employees is an important consideration. Cloth face coverings are intended to fit snugly and cover the nose and mouth of the user. They would, ideally, be made of at least two layers of fabric. Considering the shortage of PPE for healthcare providers, the CDC does not require “medical-grade” PPE for non-medical uses. However, if it is possible to obtain disposable face coverings for use by employees, it may be wise to do so. As for members, exercise while wearing PPE can be uncomfortable, but if physical distance is not possible, PPE could be a viable option.
As far as state recommendations, Texas and Tennessee have issued fulsome guidance for exercise facilities, and it is likely that many states will follow suit. Recommendations include employee screening questions and temperature checks, providing training and requiring use of PPE, as well as increased hygiene practices, to name a few.
Guidance: Member Safety
Much like the screening questions you might ask employees, screen members prior to entry and record their responses. Additionally, post signage requesting members use only one piece of equipment at a time and disinfect before and after use. It is a good idea to post signage about COVID-19 generally, and the CDC offers free print resources (including “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” signs in a variety of languages).
Require hand sanitation upon entering and exiting the facility and set up sanitation stations throughout. For studio classes, program additional “rest” throughout the class to wipe down equipment, work areas, and for hand sanitation. If possible, limit circulating members to stations and, instead, alter your programming to personal stations – mark off stations with tape to encourage social distancing.
Guidance: Limiting Liability
Before re-opening, you may consider consulting your insurance broker to determine what type of coverage you have for your employees as well as any liability coverage for illness or death. Considering the communicable nature of COVID-19 and its incubation period, while it is difficult to trace the source of an infection, if a few employees or members were to get sick, they may conclude that their gym is to blame. However, measures can be taken to help limit your liability in this event.
Some practical considerations include limiting capacity to meet social distancing guidelines. Check state or local emergency orders – it may be that localities have limited establishments to 40% capacity or one person per every thousand square feet, for example. Next, limit operational hours to only staffed hours and to allow for extra cleaning. Close showers, locker rooms, and common areas for the time being. Remove or space out seating, especially on pool decks. In addition to providing hand sanitizer, set up hand washing stations and provide hygiene supplies in bathrooms.
Next, consider e-mailing members revised liability waivers and require electronic signatures prior to returning to the gym or studio. Likely, members signed a liability waiver when they first joined. Most individuals are familiar with liability waivers and will not find it unusual to sign one or sign an updated waiver. It is currently unclear if a COVID-19 waiver is enforceable, but this is largely because COVID-19 is a new disease and these types of waivers have not yet been litigated. Historically, waivers have been upheld in negligence actions so long as the waiver is clear and unambiguous. Of course, intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct cannot be waived; however, the practical measures discussed above along with a well-constructed waiver should help limit exposure in the event of a negligent action.
As gyms and fitness studios re-open, boutique or locally-owned facilities may find themselves incurring additional expense and debt to meet re-opening requirements. There may be federal programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program which can offer assistance. For more information on re-opening exercise facilities or programs to assist small businesses, please feel free to consult the Troutman Pepper COVID-19 Resource Center or e-mail the authors of this article.