Colm O’Connor spoke to Ireland Active Chief Executive, Conn McCluskey, about the state of the industry and what the future will look like.
Q: When are leisure centres and gyms in Ireland set to reopen their doors?
A: The government roadmap allows swimming pools to reopen in Phase 4 (July 20th), with gyms and exercise studios in Phase 5 (Aug 10th). We have put forward our view to government that reopening can happen safely in a coordinated manner in Phase 4 for the sector. This would make sense operationally, as many facilities have pools, studios, halls and gyms under the same roof, but more importantly, it will help to contribute to a more active and healthy population in the fight against COVID-19. Clarification around Phase 3 activities ‘behind closed doors’ is also being sought to see what sport and fitness activities could happen in this phase.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for leisure centre and gym owners between now and then?
A: The sector, which employs over 10,000 people, has been closed for over two months and whilst government supports such as the wage subsidy scheme have been welcome, in order to make the sector viable into the future, further measures will be needed such as the extension of the wage subsidy scheme, rates relief beyond 3 months, reduction in VAT to 0% and grant subsidies towards operating costs. The sector is willing to meet the challenges of the times ahead, however it will need government support to achieve our common objectives of retained employment and a more active and healthy society. On re-opening, restrictions due to social distancing will impact on the income generated from the industry from activities such as swimming lessons, exercise classes and summer camps.
Q: What has been the experience of gyms reopening in other countries?
A: Restrictions and phasing is different in each country internationally, however re-opening generally happens in middle or later phases with restrictions. There is variety in operational restrictions in terms of the 1m/1.5m/2m social distancing and capacity levels can therefore vary and income can drop by approximately 50%. Consumer confidence is certainly returning in Asian countries which are ahead in their reopening phases and some European countries have reopened safely in recent weeks which is positive to see and offers confidence and learnings for our industry here. There has been mention in Ireland recently about government public health advice reviewing social distancing down to 1m, similar to some other countries, which would obviously improve the financial viability of facilities.
Q: Hong Kong gyms have placed perspex around some of their equipment to ensure social distancing. Is that something you could see here?
A: It has certainly been considered by some operators, however it can also cause other operational issues such as increased cleaning, and can therefore reduce the cleaning efficiency between use. Operators will have to implement increased cleaning and hygiene measures in between sessions and many are considering investing in electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, air purifiers, adding ultraviolet lighting to HVAC systems and other air quality and flow measures to ensure a safe environment for exercisers.
Q: So paint a picture of what Irish gyms will look like post lockdown?
A: Ireland Active have drafted a safe operation framework for leisure, sport and fitness facilities which outlines a standardised approach for how to safely resume business post lockdown.
The framework measures include 2m social distancing between both equipment and exercisers (which will likely result in reduced capacity), safe swimming pool operations, increased hygiene, and regular cleaning practices as well as pre-booking to aid with contact tracing. It is likely that the new exercise experience will start before you even arrive at the facility, by booking, filling out a self-declaration form and paying online which will allow you to receive a designated time slot for exercising and remove any physical contact at reception. On arrival at the facility having cleaned your hands with hand gel, a contactless swipe card would let you through the turnstile to enter. If using the gym, for example, you might be asked to come dressed ready to exercise, bring your own towel and water bottle, and to shower at home as much as possible.
If using a piece of equipment such as a treadmill you will be asked to clean it before and after use and staff will also be regularly cleaning the facility. After your exercise is finished you will be asked to clean your hands with hand gel and to swipe out of the facility again which allows full contact tracing for everyone who enters and exits the building, making it safer than many other industries. The next exercise session will have a time spacing in between to allow for cleaning and to avoid crowds gathering/passing each other. We are also working with Swim Ireland to develop guidelines for pool programmes to ensure social distancing and capacity utilisation. Many of the safety protocols for leisure and fitness facilities have been working successfully in other countries who have emerged safely from lockdown ahead of us.
Q: Do you expect dedicated time slots for those with existing conditions or over 70 to use facilities?
A: Our framework suggests facilities may wish to employ specific dedicated hours for vulnerable users based on government public health advice. The booking of time slots with space in between sessions can enable cleaning and safe management of sessions to help with the protection of those most vulnerable in society.
Q: What about leisure centres with swimming pools, saunas, steam rooms, etc? What are the key challenges here?
A: Swimming pools will need to be managed carefully to ensure social distancing can be maintained in and around the water. HSE guidance indicates that with proper chlorine levels that waterborne COVID-19 risks can be controlled, so being in the water is relatively safe, however the management of changing rooms/cubicles and showers will need to operate off reduced capacities, have regular cleaning and ensure social distancing of at least 2m. The challenge of having reduced capacity is the obvious knock on impact to generating revenue from swimming lessons and other swimming activities. It is possible that saunas, steam rooms etc. will remain closed in any initial re-opening until further government advice is received.
Q: How badly has the industry suffered due to the lockdown?
A: Almost all employment in the industry has ceased due to closure and the sector is facing significant job losses without government support. Many businesses need to maintain considerable operating costs despite the shutdown, for example operating swimming pools, paying rents, insurance etc. which means that Covid-19 not only has had an immediate impact on the industry but also jeopardises the long-term viability of a sector that generates an estimated €500 million for the Irish economy each year.
It will be very difficult commercially for any leisure centre or gym to reopen and stay open for any period of time without significant government support given the expected restrictions on operation and increased costs associated with social distancing. We believe that a package of measures are needed to support the sector including; the extension of the wage subsidy scheme, grants for operational costs, the reduction of the sports facilities VAT Rate to 0% and zero interest/interest only loans with delayed payments.
Q: Do you expect the fall off in leisure centre and gym membership or usage to be permanent?
A: It is too soon to know how memberships will be impacted, with membership freezes being in place currently during closure, however research internationally has seen a positive response from members saying they would return to the gym after lockdown, with over 88% in the UK saying they would do so, another 8% saying they would use it less and only 4% saying they will not return. It must be mentioned that research has also shown that COVID-19 outcomes for those with a better immune system and high levels of fitness is better than those that do not. As a more health-conscious nation post-pandemic, we expect that members will return with a greater appreciation of mindfulness, immunity and overall health. The sector is willing to meet the challenges of the times ahead and contribute to a more active healthy nation.