Fitness Industry Shutdown Punishes RivCo’s Less Affluent

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — Ryan Gallagher owns eight Planet Fitness franchises in Riverside County, and for the third time since March he’s had to lay off 120 employees.

The latest lay-off came this week when state officials announced that Riverside County was moved back into the state’s most restrictive “purple tier” to prevent further coronavirus spread. The news impacted several industries. For gyms and fitness centers, it means all operations must move outdoors or close.

Moving thousands of dollars worth of fitness equipment outside, exposing it to weather and theft, is daunting for Gallagher. Where space provides at certain Planet Fitness locations, outdoor tents could be erected, but 24-hour security would still need to be in place to protect about 20,000-square-feet of equipment, which is the approximate size of each gym, he said.

The monthly $10 membership fee charged to Planet Fitness customers makes the outdoor scenario cost prohibitive, Gallagher explained.

“It’s not economically viable. We can’t do it,” he said.

Friday Gallagher was closing all eight Planet Fitness gyms. It’s ironic because he and other fitness leaders helped draft the state’s 16-page COVID-19 Industry Guidance for Fitness Facilities, he said. Not only did Gallagher adhere to the state guidance — which includes physical distancing, face coverings for members and employees, disinfection stations, and regular stringent cleaning of equipment — he also followed Planet Fitness’s 90-page health document that aims to prevent COVID-19 spread at its facilities, he said.

Gallagher pointed out that it’s not just facility owners who are struggling. Preventing access to less expensive fitness centers is harming lower-income people who rely on gyms to get a safe workout.

For people with resources and larger living spaces, home gyms might be practical — not so for apartment dwellers on tight budgets. Plus, people in more disadvantaged communities may be leery about taking an exercise routine, like running and walking, outdoors due to concerns about elevated crime in their areas.

Gallagher calls the inequity “an unintended consequence” of gym shutdowns.

“California was the leader of fitness in the country,” he said, claiming that Planet Fitness franchises in all other states are currently operating at some capacity.

“Fitness is essential for physical and mental wellbeing,” he continued. “[Our clients] can’t even relieve the stress [brought on by the pandemic].”

Data have shown that people most impacted by COVID-19 have underlying health conditions — many are also people of color living in economically disadvantaged communities. This is the demographic, Gallagher said, that can benefit most from access to low-cost fitness to help stave off myriad health problems.

“Keeping gyms closed is making people sicker,” Gallagher said.

Under the purple tier that Riverside County is now in, he said there’s a strange irony: “People can fly across the country in a plane for hours, but they can’t go work out in a gym for 45 minutes.”

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