- From Friday, gyms in Liverpool are allowed to reopen, having been forced to close since 14th October when the region was placed under tier three COVID-19 restrictions
- A GoFundMe page set up to help gyms mount a legal challenge to closures has raised more than £50,000
- More than 75,000 people have signed a petition to prevent gyms being closed
- Ukactive plans to release an updated set of data on the latest confirmed cases in gym settings in the coming days
LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — Leading voices across the fitness industry have hailed the UK government’s decision to allow gyms to stay open in Liverpool and other areas at high-risk from the coronavirus.
While celebrating the victory for the sector, the heads of ukactive, Anytime Fitness, Hotpod Yoga and 1Rebel also demanded more recognition for the industry’s potential to help combat the coronavirus, as the nation battles a second wave of the pandemic.
Gyms and leisure centres in Liverpool had been ordered to close since the region went into the country’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions on 14th October.
Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram had campaigned for the government to bring rules on fitness facilities in line with other areas under tier three restrictions like Lancashire, where gyms remain open.
The Labour mayor had said the government would put legislation before Parliament on Thursday to rescind the original decision to close gyms and leisure centres which would allow them to reopen on Friday.
Dozens of gyms in the area remained open despite the rules ordering them to shut, including Body Tech Fitness in Moreton, Wirral, which was fined £1,000.
Its owner Nick Whitcombe had urged gyms to “unite together” and stay open, with a GoFundMe page set up to help gyms mount a legal challenge to closures raising more than £50,000.
Huw Edwards, CEO of industry body ukactive, said he was “delighted” with the government’s change of heart.
Yet he also called on the government to reclassify gyms and leisure facilities as essential services, vital to the physical and mental health and resilience of the nation’s communities during this health crisis.
The decision to reopen gyms in Liverpool has been welcomed by industry leaders across the sector, including the head of Anytime Fitness which operates 172 sites across the country, and co-founder of franchise boutique studio Hotpod Yoga.
However, this latest u-turn also represents yet another mix up in the government’s crisis-ridden dealings with COVID-19 restrictions.
On Tuesday, Health Club Management revealed that gyms had been wrongly included in the “baseline list” for all areas deemed at very high risk – or classified as “Tier 3” – under the three-tier COVID-19 alert system.
The “clerical error” took more than a week to correct the perception that gyms should automatically close at Tier Three, and had led to operators threatening to take legal action against the government to defend the industry.
Neil Randall, Anytime Fitness UK CEO admitted that it was “frustrating” that its independently owned clubs and their members had to endure another closure, and stressed the sector has more work to do to highlight the role fitness can play in combating this public health crisis.
Speaking to Welltodo, Randall said: “We continue to work tirelessly to ensure our clubs are safe and it’s great to see that this has been recognised.
“It’s also reassuring to see that gyms will not be required to close as part of future Tier 3 lockdowns and that as a sector, we can continue to serve our communities.
“As shown by the closures in Wales and the Republic of Ireland, there is still some work to do in demonstrating this to both national and devolved governments and showcasing the central role that the health and fitness sector plays in the physical and mental health of its communities amidst a global health pandemic.”
“Make it through the winter”
Max Henderson of Hotpod Yoga echoed Randall’s sentiments but also demanded more clarity on guidance and financial support to help fitness businesses survive the next few months.
He told Welltodo: “I still fail to understand why there are varying approaches on this specific topic region-by-region. Yes, the decision on Merseyside should be welcomed, but why now are group classes and studios (specifically) not permitted in certain Tier 3 regions, whereas they are along with gyms, in others?
“As businesses, we all surely deserve clarity and consistency.”
Henderson added: “As the hospitality sector has made clear, while it’s good news that we can stay open, it’s not to say that support isn’t needed.
“We’ve all gone above and beyond to make our spaces COVID-secure, and are proud to be open and doing what we can to keep people healthy and happy. But businesses in our sector are still under immense pressure and many won’t make it through the winter without really significant support.”
James Balfour, co-founder of group exercise studio 1Rebel – which has several sites across the capital where COVID-19 restrictions are currently set at Tier 2 alert levels – believes the government has made “the right and only sensible decision”.
“We have seen unprecedented demand since re-opening, so we’re thrilled to be able to continue keeping the capital fit and healthy, while still being able to support our staff,” he told Welltodo.
“With minimal risk of transmission within gyms, the government should recognise the role that the industry has to play in this fight against the disease. The benefits of exercise are widely proven, and we know the fitter and healthier the nation is, the better equipped we will be to end the pandemic.”
Balfour hopes the decision to keep gyms open will finally allow the sector to focus on recovering after a difficult few months.
He added: “As a business, COVID-19 has obviously brought about many challenges this year, with a four-month full closure and ongoing cuts to class capacity of 50%. While we’re by no means out of the woods yet, we’re fortunate that our team is stronger than ever and we’ve been able to band together to face these challenges head-on.”
Further challenges to come
Despite the immense challenges the sector is facing, Randall is remaining positive that the appetite for fitness is as strong as ever, pointing to six new clubs Anytime Fitness has opened since July, including two in the past week.
Nevertheless, he also acknowledged that the industry will have to be more resilient than ever to survive further lockdown restrictions and economic hardship.
“The pandemic has undoubtedly been a challenging time for ourselves and the industry but we’re looking forward with optimism,” he said. “There are positive signs ahead and the pent-up demand for fitness memberships during lockdown has allowed clubs to hit the ground running since reopening.”
Randall added: “There are still hurdles to navigate for our clubs such as ongoing repayments of liabilities such as the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan (CBIL) and Bounce Back Loan (BBL) as well as a moratorium preventing commercial landlords from serving eviction notices being lifted at the end of the year.
“These will be made even more challenging if further closures are enforced and there isn’t the financial government support to go with it.”
Following the science
On Wednesday, ukactive’s Edwards called for any future decisions on gym closures to “be made in consultation and based on the latest operational evidence, which we will continue to provide to local and central government”.
He said: “The data we have collected from more than 1,800 facilities shows our sector is undertaking the highest levels of reporting and controlling cases of COVID-19 among customers, which have been limited thanks to strict adherence to government guidelines.
“Our sector must be allowed to play its full role in supporting the nation’s physical and mental resilience to COVID-19 at this time.”
Ukactive has been tracking the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in fitness clubs since gyms reopened on 25th July. In mid-September, it reported 78 cases from more than 22 million visits to fitness facilities, at a rate of 0.34 per 100,000 visits.
Ukactive plans to release an updated set of data on the latest confirmed cases in gym settings in the coming days.