By CRAIG CONWAY
With Rhode Island entering a two-week pause on Nov. 30, restaurants face increased restrictions and indoor sports facilities will be closed. Both will take a hit, with some businesses fearing a knockout punch.
Stephen Lukin, owner of Planet Fitness in Warwick, questions the logic of closing fitness centers, saying they are safe and important to the community.
During the governor’s two-week pause, all bar areas, casinos, gyms and group fitness facilities, classroom learning at colleges and universities, recreational venues such as bowling alleys, and offices will all be closed.
“None of this is easy and I wish I didn’t have to do it,” Raimondo said at her weekly COVID-19 press conference on Nov. 19. She said without the pause and a reduction in infections, the state runs the risk of having its hospitals overwhelmed with patients.
Restaurants have seen multiple restrictions this year, including bar areas closing and no indoor dining. Staring on Nov. 30, indoor capacity requirements will be lowered to 33 percent.
Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the RI Hospitality Association, said Tuesday she is pleased the governor waited until after Thanksgiving to implement the pause.
“However, we are an industry that needs predictability,” she said. “It’s how we operate.”
With many reservations made for the upcoming holiday, having the pause start after Thanksgiving was a relief, but according to Venturini, this has been a struggle for everyone in the industry.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “And it’s bordering on catastrophic.”
Funding through grants for restaurants and their employees are still in the works but nothing has been finalized.
As for fitness centers, Lukin is upset because he had no say in whether or not they should be closed.
The argument is that there is no evidence that fitness centers are a significant source of COVID-19 spread, according to Lukin. He also said physical activity is more critical than ever, as it plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system and reduces COVID-19 risk factors such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Rhode Island is home to 16 Planet Fitness facilities, which have no evidence of cases being contracted at the gym, stated Lukin. The Warwick location on Warwick Avenue, with nearly 6,000 members, has already felt the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns. The fitness center is only allowed to have 140 people inside at one time but mostly sees 30 to 40 people at maximum. From March 17 through June 4, all indoor sports facilities were closed due to the government-mandated lockdown. This year, the Warwick Planet Fitness has seen a 50 percent loss in revenue, a number that might increase when the two-week lockdown goes into affect.
In a visit to Planet Fitness in Warwick on Friday, staff members and members of the fitness center were all practicing social distancing as well as maintaining a clean environment.
“We have always been very clean at Planet Fitness,” Lukin said. “We’ve upped the ante even more. We clean more often and used the electrostatic backpack sprayers, which are also used in hospitals.” The chemical spray used is safe and effective, killing bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, within 45 seconds of being sprayed, explained Lukin. Once all the equipment is sprayed, the staff wipes down the surfaces so they are ready to be used. This process is done every hour, with restrooms and locker rooms being cleaned every half hour.
According to Lukin, there have been no positive cases that have been traced to any of the Planet Fitness locations in Rhode Island. With a diverse membership of all ages, this has been something that Planet Fitness has prided itself on since the reopening in June.
“Corporate was very organized when we were set to reopen,” Lukin said. “They sent each location a manual of about 100 pages with instructions and guidelines.”
Lukin is the owner of four Planet Fitness centers in Rhode Island, so making sure each location remains safe has been challenging, but he trusts and relies heavily on his staff to keep things running smoothly. Planet Fitness employs around 225 workers across its 16 locations, and Lukin says he has been very encouraged by the staff’s willingness to work during the pandemic.
Every member of the staff as well as the center members must wear masks while working out and every two machines are closed to ensure that social distancing guidelines are met. The water fountain is closed but members are able to refill a water bottle from the water station. There is contact-less check-in through the Planet Fitness app on all smart phones, and the gym members must disinfect the equipment after they have used it.
Lukin knows that many businesses have struggled this year due to the pandemic but also knows how important working out is to an individual’s overall well being.
“People’s mental health and physical health keeps them out of those vulnerable categories that the virus is hitting really hard,” he said. “To close us down and not give people the outlet to come to a safe and clean environment that is well spaced … is a very poor decision on the governor’s part, especially with no data.”
In an email, Joseph Wendelken, public information officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that there is evidence that gyms and fitness centers are sites of concern for COVID-19 transmission.
“This happens because the moist, warm air combined with turbulent air flow from exercising creates an environment in which droplets spread easily,” Wendelken said. “We know that people breathe harder when they work out, which is how the virus spreads. We also know that people are interacting with people they do not live with in these settings. This is why many other places throughout the country have either limited or ceased gym operations temporarily.”
Wendelken also mentioned how in August, the CDC published a study that identified 112 cases of COVID-19 and hundreds of exposed people, all associated with 12 fitness centers in South Korea. There have also been highly publicized gym-associated outbreaks in Illinois, California, Canada, and many other locations.
NBC 7 in San Diego, California, looked at the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency’s data on COVID-19 cases in San Diego County for the past two weeks. The settings most linked to the recent coronavirus cases are work or business settings, which account for 34.3 percent of the county’s positive cases from Oct. 25 through Nov. 7. Gyms made up 0.5 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases during that span with 18 total cases out of 1,314. This has been part of the argument made against the closure of gyms nationwide, due to the fact that they have such little impact on the rise in positive cases.
Planet Fitness has encouraged its members to reach out to the governor and their local representatives to plead their case to remain open during the lockdown.
“We have such a diverse group of people here that just want to get out of the house,” Lukin said. “They just want to stay in shape because this virus has been so devastating to those who are vulnerable.”
The start of the New Year is one of the busier times of the year, Lukin mentioned, with many people trying to get back in shape and burn off the holiday calories.