The owners of gyms large and small are trying to bounce back from a gut punch delivered Tuesday when Gov. Janet Mills scrapped a plan that would have allowed them to reopen on June 1.

Citing recent studies showing transmission of the coronavirus in indoor settings where people engaged in vigorous exercise – specifically fitness dance classes at 12 South Korean sports facilities that led to 112 infections – the Mills administration decided to wait longer before putting forth specific guidelines that would allow for a resumption of such activity. A revised decision on when to reopen gyms is expected to come sometime in June.

Planet Fitness, the state’s largest chain of fitness centers with 11 locations, already has reopened more than 300 gyms in 18 states and developed its own protocol to address concerns about virus transmission, despite some health experts saying there are fundamental safety hazards associated with gyms operating during the pandemic.

“The safety of our team and our members is our top priority,” said Mike Cleary, who owns five of the Maine franchises. “We’ve got an incredible reopening playbook. We’ve always been very clean, but we’re just upping our game with this playbook.”

Specific modifications include a touchless check-in system with a Planet Fitness app, alternating pieces of cardio equipment marked as off-limits to ensure physical distancing, masks and extensive training for employees (who will receive daily temperature checks), abundant availability and use of hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray, and new signage throughout the facility to highlight the new protocols.

Every 20 minutes, a Planet Fitness employee will walk through the gym to clean and sanitize high-touch areas, Cleary said. Members are not required to schedule visits in advance and will continue to be asked to wipe down equipment before and after use.


Cleary noted that the Portland facility is 20,000 square feet and said that all Planet Fitness locations are large enough to follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing. As for separation greater than 6 feet that may be required for people engaged in vigorous exercise, Cleary said he would be happy to accommodate any specific distancing guidelines.

“Here’s what I know,” he said. “Exercise and fitness is very important to our general health. We’ve developed a very thoughtful and thorough way to reopen our clubs so that our members and staff will be safe.”

McCall Gosselin, senior vice president of communications for the New Hampshire-based company, said there have been no confirmed transmissions of COVID-19 at Planet Fitness gyms in other states that reopened May 1 after all locations had closed down in late March.

“We don’t have fitness classes in small spaces, so we really believe we’re well-equipped to give our members ample space in which to work out,” Gosselin said. “We do have fitness trainers in our clubs who, prior to COVID-19, would work with small groups. As we reopen, we will not being doing that. There’s just a one-on-one option. Of course, any modifications that the governor announces, we will adhere to.”

Gyms and fitness centers in Maine were allowed to open May 11 for one-on-one instruction and for outdoor classes of no more than 10 participants.

The one-one-one instruction allowance is something Rachael O’Donnell, the owner of Grit & Grace CrossFit gym in Gorham, wonders about. How is a gym that offers, say, three concurrent one-on-one indoor sessions (three trainers, three members) any different from one, like hers, that conducts a CrossFit class of five with one instructor?


“It’s really the same thing,” she said.

O’Donnell, who is also a clinical social worker, said she empathizes with government officials and scientists amid such an uncertain atmosphere, and appreciates the challenges of trying to balance economic concerns with those of public health. She sent a heartfelt letter to Gov. Mills along with a proposed protocol checklist that might safely allow personal training in small groups with appropriate distancing.

She also spoke of the many benefits of exercise during a time of uncertainty and high anxiety.

“The members at our gyms support each other and make it possible for people to commit to the habit of exercise, transform the way they eat, think and take care of themselves,” O’Donnell said in her letter to Mills. “It is a transformative experience to be a member. We are more than just a gym.”

O’Donnell, who was able to quit a 20-year smoking habit after discovering CrossFit training at age 35, has been doing some online nutrition coaching and remote coaching during the eight weeks her gym has been closed, but said it’s not enough to sustain her business. Outdoor classes are not an option in the parking lot she shares with two other shops on Main Street.

“I have a lot of compassion for all of the leaders and the decisions they have to make,” O’Donnell said. “But if I don’t find a way to continue to run my business with the restrictions in place, we’re going to close. It’s hard, with the amount of work you’ve put in to build it, to watch it dissolve and be powerless to stop it. But we’re not going down without a fight. I’m going to do everything I can.”

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