Whitmer expected to OK reopening of gyms, movie theaters

Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING – Fitness centers, theaters, bowling alleys, ice rinks and related facilities — ordered closed for more than five months during the coronavirus pandemic — are expected to get the OK this week from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reopen after the Labor Day holiday.

An announcement could come as soon as Wednesday, the Free Press has learned.

Though the situation remains fluid and is subject to change based on factors such as a sudden spike in case numbers, Whitmer is expected this week to finally give a green light for the businesses and facilities to reopen, subject to social distancing and sanitation safety protocols and new requirements intended to facilitate contact tracing in the event of an infection, according to one person with close knowledge of discussions.

Most of the affected facilities have been ordered closed since March 21 in south and central Michigan, but have been able to open in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula since June 10.

In gyms and fitness centers, face coverings are expected to be required for employees and when 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained and for customers when arriving and leaving and moving about the gym. It was not clear Monday whether customers would be required to wear face masks while exercising, which some gyms around the U.S. have required during the pandemic and others have not. Whitmer's existing executive orders require masks in enclosed public spaces, but also provide an exemption from wearing a mask while exercising, if the mask would interfere with the activity.

New Jersey recently announced that gyms could reopen Sept. 1 at 25% capacity, with both employees and customers required to wear face coverings. Minnesota, which also allowed gyms to reopen at 25% capacity with masks for customers and employees, has a similar exercise exemption to Michigan's under which masks may be removed when "the level of exertion makes it difficult to wear a face covering," provided at least 6 feet of social distancing is maintained.

For movie theaters, reopening plans in other states have ranged from allowing 25% capacity to near full capacity, with some states placing caps on the maximum number of people allowed, regardless of capacity.

Also expected to get approval this week to reopen are arcades, indoor mini-golf facilities, and entertainment venues related to a relatively new form of recreation — ax throwing, according to the source. Prospects are less certain for convention centers wanting to hold indoor meetings with more than 10 people and larger outdoor facilities such as minor league baseball parks and concert venues.

Whitmer has "acted swiftly" to reopen Michigan's economy, but only based on data and recommendations from experts, and Michigan is in a better situation than other states as a result, said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, who would not confirm an announcement is coming this week.

"With their high levels of heavy respiratory activity, shared indoor spaces and shared surfaces, it makes perfect sense that gyms would be one of the later businesses to come back online because of the inherent risk posed to employees and patrons," Brown said.

Whitmer, reacting to growing pressure and questions from businesses that said they could soon be forced to close permanently, said Aug. 25 she is "not going to be bullied" on the reopening issue, but that her officials continued to study the issue on the basis of data and science.

The bullying comment drew more sharp criticism from Republicans and others who said it is the businesses that are being bullied because they are not being treated fairly with respect to other businesses, such as Detroit casinos, which were allowed to reopen Aug. 5 at 15% capacity.

On Aug. 21, the Bowling Centers Association of Michigan and several bowling alleys voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit they brought against Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, with officials saying that dropping the lawsuit heightened their chances of arranging a meeting with state officials to address their concerns. The lawsuit, filed Aug. 6, alleged that Michigan was one of only five states where recreational bowling remained under a ban and detailed protocols for safe reopening had been shared with Whitmer weeks earlier.

More:Whitmer on reopening gyms and theaters: 'I'm not going to be bullied'

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Jane McNamara, owner of Jazzercise Royal Oak Fitness Center, said the forced closure, while understandable at the beginning of the pandemic, has been hard on both her and her customers.

"I don't understand why she's waited this long," while opening bars, strip clubs and casinos, said McNamara, whose facility normally offers 60 one-hour classes per week.

She has lost 28% of her income, despite introducing outdoor classes in a nearby parking lot and livestreaming classes for customers to participate in from home.

"People join Jazzercise because it's a group fitness activity," McNamara said. "These are people who don't want to work out alone."

Her reopening plan includes requiring masks upon arrival and departure and maintaining 7.5 feet of distance between guests during classes. She said she hopes members will be able to remove face masks during classes, because it would be difficult to work out while wearing a face covering.

Brian Rief, a co-owner of Planet Fitness Michigan, which has more than 40 locations around the state, said Friday on the public affairs program "Off the Record" on WKAR-TV, that he is optimistic.

"I think they're looking closely at reopening gyms," said Rief, who has been communicating with Whitmer's officials through the Michigan Fitness Club Association.

"It is top of mind, I believe, with the governor's office."

Rief said his industry has a comprehensive COVID-19 playbook dealing with social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing, and contact tracing.

"COVID-19 is not being spread in gyms," Rief said.

At Planet Fitness locations worldwide, there have been more than 45 million check-ins as of May 1 and a positive case rate of .00028%, he said. In the entire gym industry in the U.S., the infection rate as a percentage of check-ins has been about .002%, he said. And in Ohio, where gyms reopened on May 26, "we've had eight total cases," he said.

The Planet Fitness coronavirus playbook is 90 pages and was sent to the governor's office in April, he said.

The company has removed every other piece of cardio equipment to ensure members maintain distances of at least 6 feet from one another, has touchless check-in and strict cleaning protocols in place, and is in a much better position to assist with contact tracing than other industries because its customers are members who check in when they arrive and already have their contact information on file, he said.

Rief said the governor has a difficult job, but there has been some frustration over some of the industries, most recently the Detroit casinos that have been allowed to reopen ahead of gyms.

He said he would feel safer going to a gym than to a bar, restaurant or grocery store.

Though state officials have raised concerns about heavy breathing inside gyms during workouts, Rief said he has not seen data showing that transmission through the air is more common in gyms than in other businesses enforcing social distancing and other protocols.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter

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