Life Time making big push to reopen health clubs

Life Time CEO Bahram Akradi says he’s in the business of keeping people healthy. So he was surprised when Gov. Tim Walz included health clubs along with bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues in a COVID-19 related "pause" on businesses last month.

"They have thrown the bars, restaurants and gyms into the same sentence for nine months," Akradi told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. He says that’s unfair because his chain of health clubs and many others have gone to great lengths to keep people safe from COVID infections.

"We are conducting the COVID safe environment," Akradi says. "Costco isn’t. Three hundred people shoulder-to-shoulder."

It bothers Akradi that health clubs and gyms can’t even be open at 25% capacity while big-box retailers are open at 100% capacity and drawing big crowds during the holiday shopping season. Not only are those crowds hard to manage in-store aisles and checkout lines, but it’s not easy to contact trace who was there and when unless they buy something and charge it.

He says Life Time clubs allow for detailed contact tracing.

"I know that you checked in, I know who else checked in," he told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS last week in his empty Chanhassen fitness center. "If you’re doing a yoga class or spin class I know which bike you were on, which mat you were on and I know who was on the bike (or mat) next to you."

Walz says he understands all that. However, he says he also understands the very nature of what people do in health clubs puts them at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

"The longer you’re near someone in a smaller space and you’re doing things that make you breath harder the chance of infections go up," the Governor told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in response to a question last week.

But Akradi points to the state’s own data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) as evidence health clubs are doing a good job cleaning and encouraging behavior to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19.

By the time the state closed down health clubs again last month, he says just 734 of 237,000 positive COVID-19 cases came from health clubs, stemming from 47 outbreaks.

However, in response to a question about that, MDH said those are just the known cases from health clubs.

"When we identify cases as associated with an outbreak, they are only the tip of the iceberg," MDH said in a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. "We use a pretty high threshold (five cases from five different households) to say there was likely transmission occurring at this place. There are usually many times more cases out there, though we do not know exactly what the multiplier is at this time. "

Walz says he’s following the advice of MDH by including health clubs in his business closures.

"The fact of the matter is whether it’s here, whether it’s in the other 49 states, whether it’s across the world, the data seems to support these are areas that have higher concentration," the Governor said last week.

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However, MDH says it’s mostly relying on its own data collected in Minnesota rather than specific studies from Minnesota or elsewhere in the United States. Although they did forward a couple of articles about a study in South Korea that showed during one 24-day period last August "112 persons were infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus associated with fitness dance classes at 12 sports facilities." They also forwarded an article about why some studies sponsored by the health club industry are "flawed."

Life Time points to a study from Europe sponsored by the fitness industry there (EuropeActive), but conducted by two universities.

"Since the study’s official launch on 25th Sept. 2020, research and evaluation partners have collected data based on more than 62 million visits to fitness clubs and leisure facilities with only 487 positive cases (of both members and staff) reported from operators based in Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Luxembourg and The United Kingdom."

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS medical expert Dr, Archelle Georgiou says she understands why MDH is keeping a lid on health clubs.

"Because of the activities that occur in a health club, just by their very nature of what they are, people are going to be in higher-risk situations," she says.

However, she says MDH should be more transparent about why they’re one of just a few states completely shutting down health clubs at this point in the pandemic.

"They should be very transparent about the lack of data," she says. "That being said they should then explain their rationale for shutting health clubs down. In my opinion it makes sense based on judgment, but they shouldn’t create clouds of confusion as if they have data that doesn’t exist. So absolutely they should be more transparent and call it for what it is, which is that they’re being more safe than sorry."

Akradi says he’s willing to take dramatic new steps to get health clubs back open, proposing four specific new restrictions. They include requiring reservations to enter a club, mask-wearing at all times (not just when moving between machines or weights), reducing capacity to as low as 10-20%(instead of 25% when they closed last month) and increasing the social distance between exercise machines even beyond current recommendations.

After furloughing just over 3,400 Minnesota health club workers at Life Time in this second shutdown, Akradi just wants the health club industry to be treated fairly. He says Life Time hasn’t found one case of COVID-19 that originated in a Life Time club. If his clubs were the source of widespread COVID-19 cases he says he’d be the first to say they should close.

"The solution to the problem has been completely mishandled, hasn’t been done fairly and has created massive winners and big losers," he says, with the health club industry being among the biggest losers.