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Hard hit by the pandemic, Chicago gyms scramble to verify vaccinations under new city mandate

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Kelsey Kennedy, right, updates membership information to reflect that Jack Fritz, center, and his daughter Mallory, left, are vaccinated so they don't have to show a card each time they visit Lakeshore Sports and Fitness, Jan. 6, 2022.

Chicago gyms, which have struggled with closures, masking requirements and revenue declines during the pandemic, are facing a new challenge: a citywide mandate ensuring visitors are fully vaccinated.

The proof of vaccination requirement took effect Monday in Chicago and suburban Cook County, with mixed results at a sampling of gyms. The verification process proved seamless for some operators, while at least one South Side fitness studio called it a “death blow.”

Somewhere in the messy middle is Lakeshore Sport & Fitness, which has locations in Lincoln Park and in the Loop at Illinois Center. The club designated full-time staffers to sort through emails and added extra employees at the front desk to verify vaccination cards for its more than 10,000 Chicago members.

“The challenges of implementing this type of thing are a lot harder than either the public at large, or the administration that rolls out these rules, can possibly imagine,” said Peter Goldman, 49, managing partner of Lakeshore Sport & Fitness. “There’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of costs and we’re losing money as a result.”

The city and suburban Cook County implemented the vaccine mandates as COVID-19 cases soar amid the spread of the omicron variant. Under the rules, restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gyms are among the businesses required to see a vaccination card from people 5 years old and older before allowing entry.

Employees are also required to be vaccinated or provide proof of a weekly negative COVID-19 test.

Health and fitness clubs have been hard hit across the U.S. during the pandemic, with more than 1 in 5 permanently closed as of July, due to the impact of COVID-19, according to a report by IHRSA, a global health and fitness trade association.

Throughout the pandemic, gym and studio use declined by more than 50%, while revenues fell by more than $29 billion from March 2020 through June 2021 across the industry, according to IHRSA.

As vaccinations rolled out and restrictions eased during 2021, there were signs of recovery, with gym visits and revenue gaining traction. In Chicago, gyms that were closed for much of 2020 progressed through a phased reopening before the city eased indoor mask mandates and capacity restrictions in June.

But Chicago reinstated the mask mandate for gyms and other businesses in August amid the spread of the delta variant, and added the vaccine requirement Jan. 3 as omicron led to a record number of reported COVID-19 cases.

From national chains to small fitness studios, the vaccine mandate has generated both pushback and support, as Chicago-area operators try to recover from two years of pandemic disruption.

Minnesota-based Life Time, a national chain with 11 clubs in suburban Chicago, is opening its first location in the city Monday at the new One Chicago residential tower in River North. The high-end, 126,000-square-foot club has already signed up nearly a thousand members, all of whom must now provide vaccine verification before using the facility.

The “athletic resort,” which has been in development since 2019, features a spa and cafe, indoor and outdoor aquatic centers, fitness studios and more than 400 pieces of strength training equipment. Memberships start at $229 per month.

Life Time also plans to open an adjacent 39,000-square-foot co-working space in the spring. Launching both ventures during a pandemic may seem ill-timed.

“No question that the environment is interesting and presents a level of challenge,” said Life Time President and COO Jeff Zwiefel.

Life Time, which has more than 150 athletic clubs in the U.S., went public in October. Like many fitness chains, Life Time struggled during the pandemic, seeing its revenues cut in half to $948 million and swinging to a loss in 2020, according to its initial public offering.

The company projected revenues of more than $1.3 billion for 2021, but lost $275 million through the first nine months of the year, according to financial statements.

Zwiefel said the Chicago vaccine mandate is part of a patchwork of mitigation measures the chain has navigated during the pandemic. Some customers opposed to mandates cancel their memberships while others may put them on hold, he said.

“You have a percentage of customers that are not going to be happy about the government mandates,” Zwiefel said. “We’re always going to do what we have to do to comply with government officials.”

Privately owned East Bank Club, the 41-year-old, 350,000-square-foot fitness mecca in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, has about 8,000 members, down 20% since the onset of the pandemic.

The club, which had difficulty at times enforcing the mask mandate among its members, got ahead of the city and implemented its own vaccine mandate in October.

“It was a real positive decision for us, because actually, we’ve gained memberships since that day,” said East Bank CEO Mel Kleist.

Kleist said the club surveyed its members in advance of the vaccine mandate and found most supported it. Announced in August, members had a full month to submit their cards, or if necessary, get vaccinated, before the mandate went into effect Oct. 1.

To facilitate vaccinations, East Bank launched its own in-house clinic, administering over 1,000 booster shots, Kleist said. All East Bank members and employees are fully vaccinated and the proof is on file with the club, making compliance with the city’s mandate a fait accompli.

“I wish they would have followed our lead back in October,” Kleist said. “I think it would have been more effective, but any time is better than never.”

Lakeshore Sport & Fitness, which has been in business for 50 years, also lost several thousand members during the pandemic and has about 10,000 paying customers between its two Chicago locations, Goldman said. The original 185,000-square-foot facility on Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park has been getting busier this fall, while the downtown club is down to about 100 visitors a day as many offices remain empty, he said.

The club is using its check-in software to verify the vaccination status of its members, with those who have not previously submitted their cards steered to a “secondary check-in desk” for processing, according to a pop-up message on the Lakeshore website.

“Our membership was largely vaccinated. I don’t think it’s changing any of their behavior,” Goldman said. “It’s just a large amount of compliance work on everyone’s part.”

Beyond the staffing and administrative costs, Goldman said the vaccine mandate has rubbed some members the wrong way, raising tensions and, in some cases, precipitating cancellations.

“I’ve gotten three emails today from people saying whether or not I’m vaxxed is none of your business, and I’m not going to share any medical information with you,” Goldman said. “Please cancel my membership or put it on hold until this requirement goes away.”

Goldman said the “vast majority” of Lakeshore members are in favor of a vaccine requirement, but the politicized nature of a government mandate puts health club employees in the line of fire.

The short lead time of the vaccine mandate, which was essentially announced and rolled out over the holidays, was also problematic, he said

“We’ve got a bunch of people who are in the business of trying to take care of people and have them enjoy coming to a health club, that are now having to fight with them about all these issues, and we’re not prepared,” Goldman said.

Smaller fitness studios have been even harder hit by the pandemic, with more than 1 in 4 permanently closed due to COVID-19, according to the IHRSA report. The added burden of vaccine verification may loom larger for them.

Reyna Hoerdeman, 40, has owned Studio Fit Chicago in Lincoln Park since 2017. The all-female club, which charges $49 a week for classes ranging from barre to boxing, lost more than half of its membership during the pandemic. A core group of more than 100 members in 2019 has dwindled to about 50 entering the new year, despite adding virtual workouts and other mitigation measures.

While the studio didn’t previously have a mandate, last spring it began the practice of asking members to upload their vaccination cards into the customer registration system, and everyone complied, Hoerdeman said.

Implementing the vaccine mandate this week required no new action on the studio’s part, but Hoerdeman shared the city’s verification policy with her members via email and social media, “just to reinforce things,” she said.

Cheryl Nelson, owner of She Fit Studios in Hyde Park, a boutique gym that features spinning classes, strength training and stretching exercises, relocated from Dyer, Indiana, to the city’s South Side in February 2020 — one month before the pandemic hit — and it’s been downhill from there.

Membership has plummeted from 105 to seven over the past two years, with Chicago’s vaccine mandate delivering a death blow to She Fit Studios, Nelson said.

Nelson emailed her members over the holidays that they would be required to show proof of vaccination. The responses, she said, were less than favorable.

“I wanted to have a conversation prior to them getting there so they were expecting it,” said Nelson, 45. “I had a few members immediately email me back and tell me to cancel their membership.”

Several members told Nelson they were not planning to get vaccinated and asked for a refund, which she provided.

The three women that attended a Wednesday class showed Nelson photos of their vaccination cards on their phone, a verification process that even she questions.

“There are so many fake vaccination records running around,” Nelson said. “I’m not an expert, you could be showing me anything. I don’t know if it’s real or not.”

While she adhered to Chicago’s mask mandates, fielding some complaints but insisting members wear them even during high cardio workouts, Nelson never previously asked members if they were vaccinated, feeling the subject was “too intrusive” to broach.

Nelson, who also own a carryout restaurant in Old Town called Sweet Vegan Bakes, said the vaccine verification was the “nail in the coffin” of her fitness studio, which could not afford to lose more members. After two years of temperature checks, hand sanitizers, social distancing and masks, the studio’s days are numbered, she said.

“I think I’m going to close in the next 30 to 60 days,” Nelson said. “It’s so sad because I spent all of my money building that thing up. But I can’t keep losing people.”


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