Despite Red Tier Status, Kern County Deems Some Gyms 'Essential Businesses'
Depending on a county’s status in California’s reopening blueprint, most of the state’s gyms are allowed to operate either exclusively outdoors or indoors with tight restrictions on capacity. In Kern County, however, some gyms have been designated as essential, allowing them to circumvent those guidelines.
The two Sculpt 365 facilities in Oildale and Tehachapi are equipped with the free weights and exercise machines typical of gyms. Owner Terry Delamater, however, prefers to call his facilities health clubs because the focus, he says, isn’t just on losing weight and building muscle mass. “We offer programs in fitness that help people prevent disease, especially diabetes, osteoporosis,” Delamater says, as well as “keeping a healthy immune system so that if you do get exposed to the coronavirus, you hopefully will not get it, and if you do get it, you're not going to die from it.”
Delamater is a licensed pharmacist, and his interest in integrating fitness and medicine led him earlier this year to become a member of the Medical Fitness Association, a North Carolina non-profit that aims to help gyms become an integral part of disease management and prevention.
That membership is one reason the Kern County Department of Public Health deemed the clubs essential, after Delamater shared information about the association with the county. “Because the owner of Sculpt 365 indicated that medically referred patients should have the ability to continue to be helped and because the Medical Fitness Association stated they are ‘physician supervised,’ we felt they met the definition of an essential ‘healthcare/public health’ service, and therefore were ok to operate,” wrote public health spokesperson Michelle Corson in an email.
As of early August, Sculpt 365’s two clubs have been allowed to open indoors with no limit on capacity, despite the fact that other gyms are allowed to operate indoors at only 10 percent capacity under the county’s status in the state blueprint’s “red” tier.
“Medical fitness is…not just fun and games, it’s not just getting out there and exercising, there’s a science behind it,” says Medical Fitness Association President and CEO Bob Boone, who also just published a book on the field. The goal, he says, is to use gyms to improve quantifiable health measures like blood pressure, lipid levels, or the blood sugar levels indicative of diabetes and prediabetes. “We want to maximize those things using exercise, nutrition and health coaching, and reduce those risk levels to a point where they’re manageable,” he says.
Since Delamater’s success in reopening, Boone says membership applications to his association have skyrocketed. “We’ve had over 300 new facilities join our organization in just the last 3 weeks from across the country,” Boone says, which nearly doubled the association’s membership levels.
Although Boone is excited to help gyms legitimately connect with the medical community, he’s wary of membership in his organization being abused. Any gym can become a member, he says, but the process of obtaining certification as a medical fitness facility can take more than a year and involves a long checklist including developing individualized screening and tracking programs, writing new safety and emergency policies, and establishing medical oversight over the facility.
While Delamater has begun some of the steps to get his two facilities certified, most gyms have not: According to Boone, only around 45 of the association’s roughly 700 member gyms have received certification. “If the only reason you’re trying to join us is as an excuse to try to get open, good luck, cause you’re probably not going to qualify,” Boone says.
Kern County appears to be walking back a decision to also allow a handful of Planet Fitness locations to reopen ahead of state guidelines after that franchise gained membership with the association. “After speaking with the Medical Fitness Association, we feel that Planet Fitness might not meet the essential service category,” Corson wrote in the statement. “We are planning on having a dialogue with them regarding our discussion with the Medical Fitness Association and getting a better understanding of their ‘physician supervision.’”
Delamater is grateful his facilities were allowed to open, but he feels that all gyms should be considered a part of the healthcare system. “I think they should have considered gyms essential from the get-go, just like a physical therapist is considered essential,” he says.
Although Sculpt 365 facilities are open with no restrictions on capacity, Delamater says clients must submit to temperature checks at the door and exercise equipment has been spaced out to maintain social distance. However, while employees are required to wear masks at all times, clients are not.