WOONSOCKET — Why have we been singled out?
That is the question Stephen Lukin, a co-owner of four of the 16 Planet Fitness locations in Rhode Island, is asking in the wake of Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s two-week shutdown order for all fitness centers, from Nov. 30 through Dec. 13.
That is also the question being asked by Laura Cole, 41, of Cumberland, a full-time mother who frequents Planet Fitness up to five times a week.
“I am frustrated and mad,” Cole told The Journal on Saturday. “My entire family goes there. My mother is 74 … my sister, 36. … We use it not only for physical fitness, [but] in this pandemic … it is part of our mental well-being.”
“I cannot emphasize how safe I feel when I am there. To have it taken away from me is [not only] frustrating, it puts a little bit of panic in me.”
“Almost no one else is closing,” said Lukin of Raimondo’s latest effort to halt the surging spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, except for colleges and universities, already scheduled for holiday breaks, other indoor recreational facilities, organized sports and bars.
“We don’t want restaurants to close. We don’t want grocery stores, liquor stores … to close either, as long as they can operate in a safe way.
“We feel we have enough space. Everyone is required to wear masks. On average, we have about 35 people at a time, including … employees in a 20,000-square-foot space.”
On a virtual walk-through of Planet Fitness’s cavernous fitness center in Woonsocket, where only 12 of 50 treadmills are available for use — the others marked off-limits, Lukin held up one of the electrostatic spray guns used to disinfect equipment hourly, in addition to the towel-and-disinfectant wipe-downs required after each use.
“And if you compare that to a grocery store or, I don’t want to name a name, a home- improvement store …”
He questioned how often they are “monitored” in comparison to a fitness center, such as his, inspected twice a week for compliance with the mask wearing, social-distancing and disinfection requirements imposed during the pandemic.
Asked what evidence led the Raimondo administration to target gyms and fitness centers for closure during the newly announced two week “pause,” Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said:
“There is evidence that gyms and fitness centers are sites of concern for COVID-19 transmission.
“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 been highly publicized gym-associated outbreaks in Illinois, California, Canada and many other locations.
“This happens because the moist, warm air combined with turbulent air flow from exercising creates an environment in which droplets spread easily. We know that people breathe harder when they work out, which is how the virus spreads, especially in confined, indoors places.
“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 said.
To date, the Health Department has shut down — at least temporarily — numerous hair salons, deli shops and mini-marts, bars, restaurants and lounges, but only one fitness center.
The shutdown order for A&D Fitness in Johnston was issued on Nov.12 after repeated visits — and warnings — from “COVID task force inspectors” responding to complaints about “staff and participants not wearing cloth face coverings while working out,” and lack of social distancing.
Upon arrival on Nov. 6, “the inspector observed that there was a fitness class underway, but because of the overcrowding and lack of mask wearing, she felt unsafe to enter. No inspection was conducted.”
On a return visit to A&D Fitness a day later, the report says: “the owner and several patrons were aggressive toward her. As a result of this interaction, no inspection took place.”
When she tried again, the next day: the report says: “the owner was once again uncooperative with the inspector and threatened to call the police,” stating “she is tired of being inspected and believes that she is doing everything properly.”
Mary Zanor, a spokeswoman for Planet Fitness, questioned Raimondo’s decision to shut down an entire segment of R.I.’s business community “despite zero data-driven evidence of significant COVID-19 spread at fitness facilities.”
“In fact, a recent study tracing COVID-19 cases in San Diego found that only one-half of 1% of cases stemmed from a fitness center, compared to 8% at retail locations — which will remain open as we head into the busy holiday shopping season.”
But the Department of Business Regulation provided a copy of two emails to members of a different fitness center, not cited as of Saturday for a violation.
“Given the intensity of our workouts, we do not feel it is safe to mandate that our clients wear masks,” said the first about two weeks ago.
A week later, this update went out from that unrelated fitness group: “We were made aware today of a few people who have tested positive for COVID-19 … . With that in mind we have a few instructors, members and staff in isolation or quarantine to insure it does not spread. This presents a staffing problem for us where we can’t cover all the classes.”
Part of a franchise network based in Dover, New Hampshire, with more than 2,000 outlets nationwide, Planet Fitness franchises in Rhode Island alone employ close to 250 people. Members pay between $10 and $23 a month.
Lukin said Planet Fitness — already down 20% year over year in revenue and membership — will continue to pay staff for the two-week shutdown.
He said Planet Fitness is considering hiring a State House lobbyist, as some other industries that escaped the brunt of Raimondo’s order already have.
There are approximately 300 gyms and fitness centers in Rhode Island subject to Raimondo’s shutdown order.