Minnesota fitness centers add marketing muscle in effort to reopen

Minnesota’s fitness industry has pumped up its marketing muscle to try to convince state officials that it is safe for them to reopen along with other businesses.

Twitter hashtags #FitnessMN and #WellnessMN are flooding Gov. Tim Walz’s account with a unified message that “fitness and wellness are essential, not optional.”

Minnesota-based national chains Anytime Fitness and Snap Fitness took out a full-page ad in the Sunday Star Tribune, and in the past week they began urging their franchisees, other health club owners and their members to support an online petition that now has more than 22,500 signatures.

Fitness centers, they said, are ready to reopen responsibly.

“Just as grocery stores and other businesses have adapted to operate safely with social distancing measures in place,” the petition reads, “we are asking that health and fitness facilities be allowed to reopen with prudent safety protocols.”

Health officials consider fitness centers problematic because workouts can force viral droplets into the air and equipment is shared by multiple people.

Walz left the industry out of his most recent decision to allow bars and restaurants, hair salons, campgrounds and youth sports to begin reopening June 1 with restrictions on capacity.

Walz’s effort to allow a gradual return to normal comes as hospitals are treating a rising number of patients with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the highly contagious and sometimes deadly coronavirus. The state is expected to reach its peak in the coming weeks.

Representatives from Anytime Fitness, based in Woodbury, Snap Fitness and Life Time, both based in Chanhassen, have been meeting regularly with state officials to work on guidelines. They argue that their new plan involving masks, more cleaning and social distancing can work in Minnesota, and they point to other states where their fitness centers have already reopened.

“We find it frustrating that a retailer can operate at 50% capacity when we have provided far more specific guidelines — for instance, one person for every 120 square feet,” said Chuck Runyon, chief executive of Anytime, a national chain of 2,700 clubs. “We have some components that can make it easier to manage traffic flow, manage capacity, oversee members and create safety.”

Fitness centers, along with movie theaters, bowling alleys and large sporting venues, are expected to open under limited conditions in later phases of the governor’s “Stay Safe Minnesota” plan, though no dates have been announced.

In the past week, at least 25 other gym owners from across the state, including big brands and independents of all sizes, have joined the effort led by Anytime, Snap and Life Time to get centers reopened, a spokeswoman for Anytime Fitness said.

But a contingent of smaller boutiques that specialize in activities such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi said they shouldn’t be lumped in with larger gyms that specialize in weightlifting and high-intensity workouts.

“They’re treating this as if we’re all equal,” said Julie Gronquist, a personal trainer and owner of Balance for Life Fitness Center in Arden Hills.

“They are talking about high-intensity workouts. That’s very different than therapeutic sessions with a 50-year-old who just had knee-replacement surgery and needs to get mobility back in her legs. We’re working on stretching, range of motion, injury recovery.”

Smaller studios don’t even have a seat at the table in talks with state officials, said Gronquist, who has 30 employees and only sees clients by appointment.

A petition she started to get the governor’s attention has garnered more than 1,800 signatures.

“I don’t want to see the small boutique fitness industry gone and the only thing left are the big chains,” Gronquist said.

Dawn Bryant, a business consultant with a background in corporate communications, said she just wanted “to get people moving,” not start a political movement.

She launched an initiative called Sweat Minnesota through social media to help multiple fitness centers host virtual workouts for anyone trying to stay active during the early days of the stay-at-home orders.

After just a handful of Saturday sessions, Sweat Minnesota’s Facebook workouts had 106,000 views with more than 140 fitness and wellness centers, Bryant said.

Bryant lost 130 pounds after working with personal trainer Jason Burgoon at his northeast Minneapolis studio, Bodies by Burgoon, and became an advocate for fitness.

“People are tired, sad, overwhelmed,” said Bryant, who does some consulting work for Burgoon. “In normal times it’s hard for gyms to keep clients engaged. It’s all the harder when you can’t open the doors.”

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