On November 16, 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a stay-at-home advisory due to the city’s steep rise in reported COVID-19 cases. Fitness facilities were excluded, including the 350,000-square-foot East Bank Club, a premier fitness brand that has served the community since 1980.
Why exactly were fitness facilities excluded, when so many other cities and states had required gyms to close upon imposing new restrictions?
According to Mel Kleist, the executive director of East Bank Club, it all came down to relationships — starting with the formation of the Illinois Fitness Alliance, founded a few months into the global pandemic and which Kleist is on the board of.
“This whole year has just been about relationships,” said Kleist. “We’ve been trying to form relationships with anybody who is a decision maker who can help us.”
In addition to the Illinois Fitness Alliance, which has been integral in clubs gaining a seat at the table with local and state officials, another significant relationship is the one that’s been formed by East Bank Club with the local medical community.
This relationship started early into the pandemic, when East Bank Club consulted with the Chicago Medical Society (CMS) — which represents more than 17,000 physicians and licensed healthcare professionals across Chicago’s Cook County — on reopening protocols. During this partnership, Kleist realized gym operators had a lot of common ground with the healthcare community.
“As we talked to the doctors, we realized they see things the same way we do — that this pandemic disproportionately affects the deconditioned,” said Kleist. “The essence of why someone joins the club is they are making a commitment to their own health and well-being, and it has always been our responsibility to share that commitment.”
In addition, it became apparent the healthcare community was also relying on fitness facilities for their personal mental and physical health. According to Ted Kanellakes, the CEO of CMS, front-line healthcare workers have struggled immensely throughout the pandemic for a variety of reasons.
“The biggest issues facing front-line healthcare professionals today are high levels of stress, fatigue and burnout,” said Kanellakes. “These problems already existed prior to the pandemic, the crisis has just exacerbated them. Physicians are seeing significantly higher numbers of people pass away right in front of them. In addition, people suffering from COVID-19 can’t see their families, so they’re relying on healthcare workers even more for support and communication. All of these stresses are why exercise is so important for their physical well-being as well as their mental health.”
As a result, when talks of a stay-at-home advisory began looming in Chicago, CMS stepped up on behalf of the fitness industry, advocating those facilities that operate in strict adherence to public health guidelines be excluded.
“Data demonstrates health clubs are safe environments right now, which is important because prioritizing health and fitness is more essential than ever,” wrote Tariq H. Butt, the president of CMS, in a statement to Mayor Lightfoot. “We believe the responsibility is equally shared between the facility and its members to ensure a safe environment. Our physicians and licensed healthcare professionals would not enter an environment they felt was unsafe, and we feel it is critical to allow them the opportunity to get back into a regular fitness routine, offering innumerable benefits to both their physical and mental health, especially as we enter the winter months.”
According to Dr. Vishnu V. Chundi, an infectious disease specialist and chairman of the CMS COVID-19 taskforce, there are a variety of reasons why the organization feels gyms that are following the right protocols are lower-risk compared to other businesses.
For example, in the state of Illinois stand-alone gyms like East Bank Club have higher-grade ventilation systems as a building code requirement.
“The biggest issue with the virus — and what we consider congregated settings — is air turnover, No. 1,” explained Chundi. “The reason the outdoors are safer is you have the whole atmosphere of Planet Earth, which dissipates the virus even with a light breeze. So indoor settings that have good air turnover — like the East Bank Club, which has about 20 air turnovers an hour — even if someone is shedding the virus, it gets cleared.
“The second thing is clubs like East Bank Club are following recommendations like staying six feet apart and are requiring masks,” continued Chundi. “They’re also contact tracing within the building, so if someone does turn positive, they can inform people. That’s a much more controlled setting than a grocery store, where the air turnover is maybe five times an hour.”
When asked if he felt gyms would have been excluded from the November stay-at-home advisory without CMS advocating on their behalf, Kleist said unequivocally, no. “It means so much more when an infectious disease specialist says you’re safer in a health club than you are in a grocery store,” he said.
That is why, said Kleist, relationships are so key to the industry’s future success.
“We wouldn’t be open right now if we didn’t have the relationship with elected officials, with our state alliance we formed, REX Roundtables and with CMS,” said Kleist. “We just wouldn’t be open.”
Beyond leveraging relationships, Kleist also stressed the importance of communication geared at educating the public and government officials on why gyms that are following protocols are safe, and the essential aspects of fitness facilities.
“It’s about telling a story,” said Kleist. “You have to tell a story that’s convincing, and I don’t think state governments can decipher the difference between our business and any other business that’s struggling right now. They’re all struggling. That’s not the reason why we should be open. It’s not an economic reason we should be open. We should be open because we’re part of the solution.”
As Chicago and the rest of the U.S. continue to navigate the pandemic, Kleist feels confident through communication — and by leveraging partnerships with the medical community and state alliances — the fitness industry as a whole will have a successful path forward as it seeks to recover.
And, East Bank Club and the Illinois Fitness Alliance are paying it forward. Between December 14, 2020, and February 1, 2021, CMS members were offered complimentary memberships at certain facilities.
“Physicians are people too, and someone needs to take care of them so they can take care of us,” said Kleist. “This is a great win for our state to remain aligned with essential operations. The Illinois Fitness Alliance has been a great example of how we achieve more together, but equally important has been the intent to understand and work to correct the optics of our industry and how elected officials view us.”