Gyms to Congress: Give us a bailout of our own like restaurants and concert venues

Ashley Poole cried for several days after the Greenwood Village gym she has belonged to for 28 years closed suddenly in March 2020. Gone was her sense of belonging and socialization.

“I’m a cancer survivor and I can tell you that isolation during COVID was the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” the 51-year-old from Centennial said. “…Those doors closing meant the end of any sort of human interaction, and when you live alone, that is a frightening perspective.”

Colorado’s fitness centers, ranging from corporate gym chains to boutique yoga studios, were early victims of pandemic-induced temporary closures. In late 2020, capacity limits prevented them from making as much money as they were spending. Today, membership totals remain well below pre-pandemic levels and many have mounds of debt to repay.

“We’re hurting,” said Cory Brightwell, the CEO of Chuze Fitness, which has seven Colorado locations. “We came out of this in March and April (2021) happy to be getting back to a semi-normal way of doing business but with a big hole to dig out of.”

Gym owners have watched over the past year as Congress has created deep pools of grant money for restaurants and live venues — two other casualties of the pandemic — and all the while they have asked, why not us?

“These other industries have gotten relief,” said Robin Jost, owner of eight Planet Fitness locations in Colorado. “We should also get relief.”

Something to count on

Club Greenwood in Greenwood Village has been around for 34 years and has 7,000 members, according to general manager Paula Neubert. It lost about 1,200 during the pandemic and its revenue is struggling alongside.

“We are nowhere near (pre-pandemic) numbers yet,” Neubert said. “It took us 32 years to get to that point and then we were back down to numbers we haven’t experienced in years and years.”

The club closed for three months last spring. With help from the Paycheck Protection Program and members who declined to end their membership, the club was able to avoid furloughs.

“We said, ‘Hell no, let’s keep these folks employed a little bit, as many as they can.’ We just kept our membership going,” said Jim O’Toole, a 74-year-old member and self-described gym rat.

Poole compares the gym to Cheers, the fictional bar where everyone knows your name. Some of her darkest days were when it was closed last year. The second it opened, she was there, working out in the parking lot, relieved to be back in a place that is like a second home.

“It’s a sense of belonging, it’s community, it’s wellbeing,” she said. “It’s something you can count on.”

But gym owners say that without financial help, customers will not be able to count on their local gym being there.

Nationwide, 22% of gyms and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to the Global Health and Fitness Association, an industry group. Sixty-four percent of those still standing have taken on debt. The average amount is $75,000.

“A waiting game”

Last year, Colorado’s fitness industry realized it had a policymaking problem — it was “fractured,” in Brightwell’s telling, and needed to come together. Last August, the Colorado Fitness Coalition was born and then hired a lobbyist, held calls with Gov. Jared Polis and public health agencies and convinced the state government not to close gyms, even in Level Red counties.

“We, the fitness industry, should have been more proactive with our lobbying efforts than we were before the pandemic,” Jost said. “You have the Restaurant Association and all these different associations — they’ve always had lobbyists.”

The national Community Gyms Coalition was formed in the fall and lobbied Congress for fixes to the PPP program that would have allowed more gyms to benefit (corporate gyms had too many employees to qualify and small studios needed help with rent rather than payroll). When that failed, the coalition pushed for a relief bill, similar to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Brett Ewer, the head of government relations for CrossFit, sought out moderate members of Congress.

The result is the bipartisan Gym Mitigation and Survival Act, or GYMS Act, which has 154 supporters in the U.S. House and 17 in the U.S. Senate. That includes 29 Republicans, more than there were for bills to help restaurants and concert venues.

Every Democrat from Colorado is a cosponsor with the exception of Sen. John Hickenlooper (his spokeswoman said he supports the bill). No Colorado Republicans are cosponsoring it.

The bill would create a $30 billion fund for privately owned fitness centers. Those centers would receive as much as $25 million to reimburse them for revenue they lost last year. Companies owned by women, military veterans and people of color would be able to apply first.

“These were private businesses that were told to close for the public good but there was no support on the backend or wasn’t enough support on the backend,” Ewer said. “They should receive some restitution for their part in performing something for the public good.”

Supporters of the GYMS Act hope it will be added to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, and have learned that public policy is a slow grind.

“We’ve been in a waiting game,” Neubert at Club Greenwood said. “We’ve been working, working, working and we’re seeing legislation passed and relief packages passed for a number of industries and we’re not seeing it for ours. … We keep getting pushed off to the side.”

Even as they work to rebuild revenues and renew memberships, Colorado gyms face an uncertain future. The delta variant’s spread across the state and nation jeopardizes everything.

“Putting everybody back in a mask mandate would destroy us,” Neubert said. “It would. It would make all of the efforts we’ve done since February go completely backwards.”

And for gym members like O’Toole, closure would mean more than the loss of equipment and classes. For he and his wife, who are West Point alumni, it’s a social space.

“It works well for us and, my God, when it’s not around, it’s a bummer,” he said.

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