Washington has delivered aid to industries hammered by the COVID-19 crisis, with the relief ranging from $28.6 billion for restaurants to $16 billion for performance venues.
Operators of gyms, fitness centers and related facilities haven’t secured that type of targeted assistance. But their advocates are hoping that the GYMS Act, a bill that would provide $30 billion in aid, could end up becoming part of a huge infrastructure package that looks poised to pass later this year through a process known as budget reconciliation.
“I think that this is a great candidate for the infrastructure package because fitness facilities are an essential part of our health and fitness infrastructure,” Brett Ewer, part of the Community Gyms Coalition and head of government relations at CrossFit, told MarketWatch. “They are the front line of primary prevention. If you look at the data on COVID mortality, it’s highly, highly linked with obesity, and obesity responds to exercise.”
An official with the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, whose members include Planet Fitness
made similar points in an interview.
“Not much is going through Congress unless it can fit in that reconciliation or infrastructure, so we think that it can fit in that,” said Helen Durkin, IHRSA’s executive vice president of public policy. She said around 80 House lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors for the bipartisan GYMS Act, and support in the Senate is “looking good,” with an introduction of legislation in that chamber likely to come “shortly.”
The IHRSA ramped up its spending on Washington lobbying to $498,000 last year, up from just $148,000 in 2019, according to data aggregated by OpenSecrets.org. With the increased spending, the trade association hired two additional lobbying firms for “added power,” though that approach didn’t end up delivering in 2020, Durkin said. So in recent months, IHRSA’s members have focused more on talking directly to their lawmakers about the need for aid, she said.
“Helping the gyms industry isn’t just helping another industry,” she said. “It’s really helping the health of each community, and I think that’s a really important part not to miss. And that’s the part — when they have that conversation with the members of Congress — that clubs are breaking through and making them understand.”
She pointed to a study released Tuesday that found a lack of exercise is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID outcomes.
“I know that there’s sort of a feeling of ‘Maybe Congress is ready just to move on,’” Durkin also said. But she added: “Even though clubs in every state are now open, they’re still operating at significant capacity limitations, so it’s not over for us yet.”
Industry revenue fell by about 58% in 2020 amid shutdowns to fight COVID’s spread, and between one-sixth and one-fifth of U.S. gyms or fitness centers had closed for good as of the end of last year, according to the Community Gyms Coalition’s Ewer.
“The industry is hurting, hard,” he said.
The Paycheck Protection Program, a centerpiece of the government’s COVID aid for businesses, hasn’t been a good fit for the gyms industry, Ewer said. As that program’s name suggests, its forgivable loans are aimed mostly at covering payroll costs, but “for fitness facilities, usually the highest cost is rent,” he said.
The Community Gyms Coalition works “in concert” with the IHRSA and formed last fall to “add a little extra punch” to the industry’s lobbying efforts, Ewer also said. The industry hasn’t received targeted aid so far “because, for the most part, regulation of fitness facilities historically has been on the state level — and so our Washington presence wasn’t as robust as was needed,” he added, especially when compared with the lobbying power of airlines and restaurants.
From the archives: $15 billion for airline industry called ‘first surprise’ in Democratic aid plan
Also see: Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for putting big money toward care for the aging
joined the Community Gyms Coalition last month, saying in a statement that gyms and fitness centers are “important neighborhood fixtures” as it urged U.S. lawmakers to “take immediate action to help these businesses.”
“We’re still optimistic — we have no real choice but to be,” Ewer said. “We need the support because gyms and fitness facilities were particularly slated for closure and restrictions, because of the material realities of the virus that public-health officials were assessing.”
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