Getting out of gym fees can be a workout during coronavirus shutdowns

Pandemic has have wreaked havoc on fitness routines

Think it was hard to quit the gym before the pandemic? Try now, says Matty Conn.

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CORONAVIRUS AFFECTING GYM MEMBERSHIP AS MANY AMERICANS WON'T RENEW AFTER PANDEMIC: SURVEY

The 22-year-old consultant loved the low cost and convenience of the many 24 Hour Fitness gyms she could visit in the San Francisco area. But when the state shut gyms, her dues continued to vanish with her treadmill miles. She wanted to quit, she said, but couldn’t get a response from the company to her questions.

Then in June, 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection, closing half its San Francisco locations. Now she has gone from gym rat to less-than-unsecured creditor trying to escape her contract with a company with a long line of creditors.

It’s an exhausting time for fitness buffs.

The pandemic’s fast-moving shutdowns and restrictions have wreaked havoc on fitness routines, life plans and gym finances. Quitting or recouping dues—already difficult enough to inspire a plot on the television series “Friends”—sometimes seems like it requires a law degree now with branch closures and stay-home orders.

Ms. Conn said after she tried contacting 24 Hour Fitness, “The only clear communication I really received was the chapter 11 notice.”

The company declined to comment on specific complaints, and referred to a statement saying 24 Hour Fitness communicated with members about changes to its business through the pandemic, including notifying them that billings and fees would be suspended April 16. Members charged between March 17 and April 15, the statement says, will receive additional days of club access to the end of their terms, equal to the days paid while clubs were closed in their area. The company’s website has a link for members to quit.

It might be tougher than usual to get money back even if the gym hasn’t gone bankrupt. Some members of Fitness International LLC’s LA Fitness gyms said in a lawsuit seeking class-action status filed in the Southern District Court of Florida in March that they were charged for the month just one day before their gyms shut down. The company is telling them to take their claims to arbitration, which could cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars—to dispute a $30 fee—said the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jibrael S. Hindi.

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LA Fitness didn’t reply to requests for comment. It was previously quoted in a trade publication saying that some members were billed for a short period when clubs were closed from the coronavirus and that it took immediate action to address those complaints.

“It’s distressing to hear that some members are having difficulty canceling or putting holds on their memberships,” said Meredith Poppler, spokeswoman for the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association. “This industry is severely hurting, so I hope the bad actions of a few don’t paint another negative on the small businesses.”

The fitness industry lost an estimated $700 million a week during the height of the shutdown, according to data the association published this summer. Some clubs have pivoted to outdoor workouts and virtual classes, but without congressional relief, the association said, it believed a quarter of U.S. clubs could close by year’s end.

One in four Americans said they would never return to the gym in a June survey by market-research firm OnePoll.

Several gym chains froze membership dues at the pandemic’s onset and have offered payment alternatives. Gold’s Gym International Inc. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, with CEO Adam Zeitsiff saying the company-owned locations would be automatically freezing membership dues at no cost until members’ gyms could reopen.

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Planet Fitness Inc. reported that membership declined 4% during the second quarter ended June 30 from the three months earlier, to 14.8 million. A Planet Fitness spokesperson said members whose clubs remained temporarily closed could contact the member-services department on its website to discuss their membership terms or needs and that members whose stores remained closed wouldn’t be charged.

Many gyms use long-term contracts, some with penalties for early termination. Contract disputes and billing issues are common among complaints to the Better Business Bureau. From 2017 through 2019, the BBB said, it fielded more than 11,800 complaints related to gyms and fitness centers. As of June, that figure was 2,226 for this year.

New York state Attorney General Letitia James and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have acted as spotters for their gym-going constituents. In March, Town Sports International Holdings Inc. —parent of New York Sports Club and Lucille Roberts—agreed to refund and credit its members for charges during the coronavirus shutdown after the attorneys general sent the company a letter about member complaints.

Town Sports didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Bankrupt gyms are in a process known as “a workout.” Gold’s Gym recently received court approval to sell itself to German fitness chain operator RSG Group GmbH for $100 million.

On July 14, a bankruptcy judge granted interim approval of 24 Hour Fitness’s request for a $250 million bankruptcy loan. Only $50 million was provided, and the company is reassessing whether that $250 million figure will be enough to keep it running.

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Difficulties quitting the gym are commonplace enough to have inspired a subgenre on internet messaging boards even before the pandemic, with quitters and gym employees offering advice about dealing with resistance and obscure requirements—like having to quit in person or by traditional mail.

Danny Herrera tapped that resource after lockdown. The 32-year-old communications consultant from Los Angeles filled out the 24 Hour Fitness online form in March. No one followed up on his inquiries, he said.

Through online research, he discovered a trick to speak with a real person. To an automated phone answerer, he pretended to be a new customer looking for membership; when he got connected to a representative, he flipped the script and asked to cancel. It worked.

Mr. Herrera created a Twitter account, @Cancel24HrFit, to upload audio of his call. “The system was set up to discourage people from canceling their account,” he said.

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