As of today, North Carolina is the last of 10 Southern states to allow fitness centers to open at least partially because of the coronavirus pandemic, says Doug Warf, president of a Raleigh-based holding company that owns 22 gyms.
“We’ve never worked so hard to finish last,” he says. “We’re inundated daily with calls from people furious that we aren’t open.”
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper is showing resolve by blocking the reopening of gyms, citing concerns of public health experts that sweaty, heavy breathing gym members could cause virus spreads. In response, Warf’s company, which owns O2 Fitness, joined peers Crunch Fitness, Orangetheory Fitness, Planet Fitness and TruFit Gym to form a coalition that is promoting an N.C. General Assembly bill that would allow a reopening at 50% capacity. A Senate committee approved the measure unanimously, and it’s expected to be debated this week.
On Friday, Cooper hinted that gyms might be included in a “Phase 2.5” that would allow some partial reopenings, but emphasized that the coronavirus remains prevalent. North Carolina is now in Phase 2 of a reopening plan that Cooper says hinges on statewide statistics on the virus, which has caused more than 1,000 deaths since March.
Warf is an N.C. State University graduate who worked for the Carolina Hurricanes NHL team for 16 years before joining Raleigh investor Michael Olander Jr.’s fitness business in 2017. O2 Fitness is the largest privately held health club based in North Carolina with 45,000 members at 22 locations, including five in South Carolina. Overall, the five coalition members say they have 150 locations and 600,000 members.
Before it closed earlier this year because of an executive order issued by Cooper, O2 Fitness employed 1,400 people in North Carolina. Now, it has 50 on staff. It had rehired a couple hundred workers in late May, expecting fitness centers to be included in the state’s Phase 2 reopening, but state officials changed their minds at the last minute, Warf says.
Since O2 Fitness’ S.C. sites opened more than two weeks ago, no members have reported contracting the virus, Warf says. Likewise, other coalition members have reported no outbreaks at locations that have reopened in three other states — Georgia, Indiana and Texas — over the last five weeks. He credits efforts to maintain cleanliness and educate members on how to work out safely without endangering others.
“We don’t want to reopen unless we can provide a safe environment,” Warf says. “We think our 14-point, 53-step reopening plan is based in science.” The plan includes advice from epidemiologists hired by national chains Planet Fitness and Orange Theory to advise on best practices.
The state’s YMCAs are not members of the fitness-center coalition.
Overall, about 2.5 million people in North Carolina attend the state’s 985 fitness centers, Warf says.