Social Distancing In Your Health Club

What does social distancing mean and how to implement it in your fitness facility as you consider reopening.

Updated September 30, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “social distancing” has become nearly universal. Social distancing has been a key strategy to slow the spread of coronavirus and “flatten the curve.” As businesses continue to navigate phased reopening, many professionals across a number of industries are asking what social distancing will mean for their business operations in the near and longer term future. This article explains what social distancing looks like in a health club setting.

What Is Social Distancing?

Social distancing is a public health practice that aims to keep potentially infectious people from coming into contact with healthy, uninfected people. It is a key part of a mitigation strategy to slow the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, through communities to protect high-risk populations and prevent (or contain) surges in illness that could overwhelm the healthcare system. Current recommendations around COVID-19 and social distancing include keeping at least 6 feet (2 meters) separation between people when out in public, and wearing a cloth face covering when other social distancing measures are harder to maintain.

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Social Distancing in the Fitness Facility

To ensure social distancing is maintained in general fitness areas, many national and regional authorities are limiting the number of people who can be in the facility at a given time. Similar restrictions have been in place for grocery stores and other retail establishments. In addition to limiting density at any one time, clubs are also proposing other means to facilitate social distancing such as signage, floor markings, barriers, and rearranging or removing equipment to achieve 6 foot distance.

While some social distancing restrictions—such as capacity—may ease, it is still important to keep members from congregating at any point—on the fitness floor, at the front desk, in locker rooms or other communal areas, in the pool area, and around group exercise, and to continue to facilitate situations where members can maintain at least 6 feet of distance.

Implementing Social Distancing in Group Exercise & Small Group Training

Social distancing in group exercise includes restricting class sizes in order to ensure that there is at least 6 feet separation between members, depending on regional or national recommendations—some regions will require a greater distance than 6 feet, and distance may depend on the presence or absence of masks. Clubs can also cap classes at a certain set number based on room size, and allow access on a first-come, first-served basis or by reservation. Consider marking spots on the floor for equipment placement that reinforces 6 feet separation between members.

It is also important to take measures to avoid congregating before, during, and after class. This can include marking the floor or posting signage so members line up at a distance, and spacing out access to equipment needed for class.

Continue communicating to instructors the importance of following and enforcing social distancing guidelines. No high fives, no postural adjustments, no walking the room. A social distancing strategy goes hand in hand (at arm’s length) with a good cleaning strategy. Instructors should announce distancing guidelines at the beginning of class, while reminding members to wipe down equipment before and after use and to wash hands before and after class. Clubs may require members to bring their own mats or towels in the earlier phases of reopening.

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Social Distancing in Personal Training Sessions

Provide a brief explanation to clients on how social distancing in personal or small group training sessions will work, and how that will (and won’t) change their training experience.

This will involve eliminating non-essential physical contact and shared touched surfaces. Increase the use of verbal cueing or demonstrating over physical touch cues. Ask clients to set their own treadmill speeds and weights, and to retrieve and put away their own equipment. Setting up and changing weights, mats, or other equipment for clients can feel like an important component of excellent customer service, but during an outbreak, it makes more sense to avoid touching the same surfaces.

Encourage (or require, as many gyms have done) clients to use a towel and wipe down all touched surfaces before and after use.

Additionally, create greater physical distance between yourself and the client, and for the time being, consider avoiding exercises like the bench press, where a spot or close observation is warranted.

Social Distancing at the Front Desk and Check-in

Of all staff, front desk staff have the highest volume of interaction with members—they greet and check-in every single member that visits the club. It is important to limit both physical touches and shared surface touch between front desk staff and members, as well as between members.

“A social distancing strategy goes hand in hand (at arm’s length) with a good cleaning strategy.”

First, remove any self-serve check-in members may use and encourage them instead to use a mobile app. For any scanned items—like a keycard or mobile app—do not let members hand their phone or card over to staff. Instead have staff move the scanning device toward the phone or card, or place it facing outward so members can scan their card/phone themselves.

If front desk staff regularly high five members as they enter, encourage them to try a different interaction such as a peace sign or an air high five. Encourage front desk staff to maintain a distance of 6 feet (2 meters) from members as they enter and exit the club. If staff routinely hand out towels or other items, change to offering these items on a self-serve basis, and arrange them to ensure members touch only items they will be using. Some clubs may avoid providing towels altogether, instead asking members to bring their own, in early phases of reopening.

The desk itself provides a physical barrier, though some businesses have taken the additional step of installing a plastic or plexi-glass barrier. Clubs should also consider providing a barrier or shield for staff who are checking temperatures or doing any other screening procedures if applicable. Staff can still chat with and encourage members, just from an appropriate distance.

Social Distancing Among Employees

Social distancing is equally important for employees. Consider whether certain staff can work remotely, and encourage them to do so. If possible, eliminate shared working stations, either providing additional phones or computers or encouraging employees to use personal devices for the time being.

For employees that cannot work remotely, ensure that each employee is set up at least 6 feet away from their closest colleagues. Ask employees to avoid congregating at the start or end of shifts, at lunch, or on breaks. Move to virtual or teleconference meetings, even for staff who are on premises. Consider encouraging employees working in the club to use a cloth face covering or mask, in accordance with regional, national, or local guidelines.

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Alexandra Black Larcom

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.