EXOS' 5-step plan for reopening fitness centers

As COVID-19 restrictions relax in some states, fitness centers are beginning to reopen. If you're thinking about reopening your fitness center, a solid reopening plan is the key to success.

There are fundamental aspects of a reopening plan. It takes research and communication, but it also requires flexibility. You’re likely used to being flexible when running your fitness center – it’s an ever-evolving offering – but pre-COVID-19 it was making sure you’re offering cutting-edge services, equipment, and spaces.

Now you need to prioritize the health and safety of your members and employees while balancing things like shifting infection rates, facility capacity, member uncertainty, and changing guidelines.

Details vary with each community, but here are five steps for any fitness center trying to reopen.

Step 1: Do the research.

With no nationwide overarching directives, fitness center owners must form their own guidelines based on site-specific guidelines, membership needs, and available resources. Laura Bush, senior project manager for implementation at EXOS, says that the company incorporated guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes for Health, and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

With locations all over the country, you also have to research state and local resources, looking for any mention of health clubs, fitness centers, gyms, and spas, and continually check for updates. Since some states’ guidelines are more specific than others, you need validate your steps. It’s time-consuming, likely taking up hours a day for weeks, but Bush says that the investment allows your facility to ensure that it’s using the most up-to-date safety guidelines in an ever-changing environment.

Jessica Gay, senior general manager for EXOS at a community-based site in Tampa, Florida, adds that it’s been useful to look at other countries and industries, such as how hospitality has handled cleaning, for best practices.

Step 2: Relearn your space.

To create a plan for your location, you have to walk the floor of your facility and envision how staff and members will interact in the space. There you’ll see how your plans actually play out and how social distancing is going to work, says April Anderson, regional director, employer fitness and wellness at EXOS.

This walk-through allows you to assess what’s needed in terms of space and equipment reconfiguration, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment – ideally 15 days’ worth on hand. These decisions can impact your opening date, budget, and how much you can offer members. Part of the considerations is how many staff members you have, but it’s also the time needed to fully clean, which might mean opening later and/or closing earlier.

One likely decision for social distancing is to block off equipment with tape or a sign to maintain distance, but since that would increase the wear and tear on half the equipment, our team came up with having A and B days to maintain a rotation.

To stay on top of sanitizing, have two dedicated staff members — one in the lifting area to spot clean heavier weights, and one in a specific zone where members can bring lighter weights for cleaning. In certain centers, soft equipment like bands, tubes, and balls, were removed from the floor. They’re high-touch pieces of equipment and would require another devoted staff person to maintain optimal cleanliness, when their time instead should be spent interacting with members, Anderson says.

The locker rooms also need to be walked through. If the showers are going to be used – something members in an office-based fitness center really need – they must be disinfected regularly. This means another area that staff members need to monitor and clean frequently, Anderson says. And check other bathroom requirements like barriers between urinals and sink area guidance.

Step 3: Communicate with staff.

All fitness center staff will have adapted job responsibilities, and it’s important that those expectations are clearly communicated prior to opening. For example, you might ask coaches to use more bodyweight exercises or one set of weights per person in multiple ways to minimize cleaning, Gay says. Other staff might be dedicated to cleaning and you need to remind them to stay available to keep things clean for members.

“You can do the best planning, and there’s always something out of left field,” says Ben Sorcic, implementation project manager at EXOS. That’s why it’s important to have frequent and regular meetings. Staff will be excited to be back, but they’ll need to be prepared to address new challenges, like increased member frustration due to limited equipment. Arm them with a list of frequently asked questions and talking points to help members settle in, even with new challenges.

Team meetings are also a needed outlet to share and talk through how people are feeling, including how to avoid burnout. “We can’t take care of our members if we don’t take care of ourselves,” says Susan Bell, regional director at EXOS.

Step 4: Communicate with members.

You’re not reopening the old fitness center. “It’s almost like a whole new place,” says Sorcic. You want to keep members informed about progress and changes and clearly explain expectations and requirements. You’ll need clear signage of where to go and what’s allowed, for example, “only X number of people in this area at once.” Members can be supportive about distancing, but “people aren’t good at eyeballing spaces,” Anderson says, so visual tools like floor decals and space limits are helpful.

Besides communicating in the facility, send out videos giving a virtual tour and showing members how to make a reservation or what the new processes will be. People can see the space and you can explain the changes. It instills confidence in the steps you’ve taken, and it’s a chance to ask members for their help in making it work, Bell says.

Step 5: Tweak your plans as needed.

After you reopen, there will be feedback. It may be that members want group training, but the challenge is that rooms are small and need to be cleaned, affecting how many people can attend and how many classes you can have, Gay says.

Find ways to make it work. You may need to reduce the class volume or number of training sessions offered. People may have to bring their own mats. Classes might not be back-to-back to allow for cleaning in between. You also can look at creatively utilizing your entire space. Something like a community center, Gay says, provides options; a ballroom, the basketball court, even outside grounds can be recruited to hold classes or to relocate equipment.

Because not everyone is working traditional hours, the usual busy times might have shifted. One thing that help to manage capacity safely is an online reservation system, where people sign up for a block of time. Play around with the reservation block time periods – Bell says that people are talking less and finishing their workout quicker – but the system can reduce stress for your staff and for members. You can also manage capacity automatically. People know they have a spot when to leave their homes, and no one has to be turned away.

To stay engaged with your members even when they're at home, check out these tips.

About the Author

Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a Boston-based writer and longtime contributing editor for Men's Health.

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