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New York, Once the US Pandemic Epicenter, Joins Other States in Letting Gyms Reopen

Much-Desired Real Estate Tenant Hits Hard Times During Coronavirus Pandemic
Gyms and chains such as Equinox in New York have remained closed in the pandemic, but they can start reopening under new guidelines. (Getty Images)

New York, one of the last remaining states to bar gyms from reopening, issued health guidelines for fitness establishments closed in the pandemic to resume business starting as early as next week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was sued last week by more than 1,500 New York gym owners, said the Empire State’s fitness facilities will be allowed to reopen at 33% capacity with health and safety changes made to their heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. Patrons will also be required to wear masks at all times, Cuomo also said during a press briefing Monday in Manhattan.

“Gyms are one of the areas where you have to be very careful, and we know that,” Cuomo said.

The stakes and the spotlight are large for New York on this issue. The state, once the No. 1 hot spot for COVID-19 cases in the United States, has gotten the virus’ spread under control and now has a less than 1% infection rate. Yet it remains one of only three states — along with New Jersey and North Carolina — to still mandate that gyms stay closed, according to the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Arizona briefly let gyms reopen, but then reinstated closings as its COVID-19 cases spiked, according to the IHRSA trade group.

The rest of the states and the District of Columbia have now allowed gyms to reopen or to resume operations in some of their regions. Restrictions on capacity range from 20% to 50%.

New York has an estimated 1,955 health clubs, and New Jersey has 1,154, according to IHRSA.

Restrictions on gym operations since March have taken a toll on many of the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 such facilities in the United States, according to IHRSA. Gyms across the nation have lost $7 billion through July 1, with 25% in danger of closing permanently by year’s end without additional federal funding, according to the trade group.

Since the outbreak started, Gold’s Gym International has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has a new owner now. And in June, 24 Hour Fitness also sought bankruptcy protection, saying it planned to close 135 of its locations.

Fitness centers across the state can open as soon as Aug. 24, under certain conditions. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio will determine whether gyms and fitness centers should postpone reopening, according to the governor’s office.

In a TV interview Monday night, de Blasio said New York City may not be able to open as quickly as the state is now permitting. It plans to take “a conservative approach,” according to the mayor, in part because of the many gym inspections that will have to be conducted in the five boroughs.

Fitness centers have become a much-desired amenity in not only office buildings and multifamily properties, but a welcome tenant at shopping strips and malls because they generate daily foot traffic for nearby stores. Several principals of New York developer Related Cos. own Equinox, a high-end fitness chain based in New York City that has a location at the Hudson Yards mixed-use complex on Manhattan’s West Side.

But some of the national fitness chains have fallen on hard times because of the financial fallout from the coronavirus and will leave vacancies as the COVID-19 outbreak drags on.

“Before this crisis, gyms were the darlings of commercial real estate,” Meredith Poppler, a spokeswoman for the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association, said in an email. “Let’s hope that enough of them will survive to be so once again.”

Lawsuits Filed

Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy have been under pressure from fitness club operators to allow gyms to reopen. A group of gyms, with a third based in New York City, filed a class-action suit against Cuomo and New York state over the closings.

Like his New York counterpart, Murphy also faces litigation over the issue. Murphy was sued in federal court by the owners of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey, who have said in appearances on national media outlets they opened despite court directives that they stay shut. New Jersey, in turn, has filed suit against them in state court.

While coronavirus-related closings have been lifted or loosened on many types of businesses, both Cuomo and Murphy have said they need to be extra cautious about gyms, where prior to COVID-19 patrons would work out in close proximity to each other and share equipment.

In a detailed statement later in the day Monday, Cuomo’s office said local elected officials may choose to delay the reopening of gyms and fitness centers until Sept. 2 to, in part, provide time for required health department inspections, and may choose to delay the reopening of indoor fitness classes until a date beyond Sept. 2.

De Blasio will determine whether gyms and fitness centers in New York City should postpone reopening, according to the governor’s office. Outside New York City, a county’s chief executive, administrator, manager or chair of the local elected legislative body will determine whether gym reopenings need to be postponed.

In an interview with the NY1 cable channel, de Blasio said New York City is waiting for more guidance from the state.

“Look, we’re very cautious on this one because we remember how bad it was just months ago,” de Blasio said. “And we’re very concerned about indoor settings. ... I think the state was right to make sure that there was local decision-making on a lot of important specifics. We’re going to be cautious with that local decision-making and choose to take a conservative approach. We also have a real open question around timing of inspections because our first priority in inspections right now for the Health Department is childcare facilities and schools, as we get ready for September.”

Localities can also postpone the resumption of indoor classes at gyms. In New York City, the mayor and, throughout the rest of the state, the county’s chief executive may decide to opt-out of indoor group fitness and aquatic classes within their jurisdiction, postponing their resumption until a later date.

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