In this May 2020 file photo, an employee of an Atlanta gym, Ellie Klarl, cleans equipment after a class. Credit: Brynn Anderson | AP

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Scott Gillespie is the owner of Saco Fitness.

Across the country, the focus on the fitness industry during the pandemic has been heavily weighted to coverage of people wanting to get back to their gyms, with very little coverage on the impact these closures are having on the people who rely on the industry for a paycheck and healthcare.

I know first-hand just how devastating COVID-19 is for those working in the fitness industry. As the owner of a gym in Saco, I see the devastation up close and personal.

For the first three months of the pandemic, we were closed and our revenues decreased 90 percent. As a result, we had to lay off 55 people – and have only been able to hire back 35, leaving 20 of my former employees still out of work.

The economic assistance we have received so far covers only a fraction of our recurring costs and we incurred significant losses since being closed. Despite the losses, we spent significant sums to make structural changes to the building to make it safe for members to return.

Although well-meaning in their intent, the restrictions put in place by the state of Maine are crippling – and some of the toughest in the country. Maine ignored federal CDC guidelines that called for six feet physical distancing during strenuous exercise without masks – opting instead for 14 feet. Indeed, the onerous regulations fly in the face of a study that shows gyms are substantially safer than many other less-regulated industries.

Even after making sweeping changes to our business model, including the addition of virtual programming, and with massive slashes to our expenses, it is questionable if the business is currently tenable.

We aren’t alone.

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, state and local governments moved quickly to shut down health and fitness businesses. This had a devastating impact on the industry, which is comprised overwhelmingly of small individual operators. Unlike many other businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, health and fitness clubs could not pivot to new revenue streams.

To add insult to injury, Congress inexplicably left much of the fitness industry unable to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). While some clubs did qualify for PPP, a large segment of the industry did not, due to the large number of part-time employees in the industry (up to 70 percent), similar to restaurants. However, unlike restaurants who were granted an exception under PPP that allowed them to only count employees per location, gyms and clubs were stuck counting all employees from all locations and with so many part-time workers many regional clubs exceeded the Small Business Administration’s employee cap and did not qualify.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost and as a direct result of congressional failure to fix this problem – hundreds of thousands of more jobs will be lost.

According to surveys and data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the economic devastation in the fitness industry is staggering. It includes $10.3 billion in lost revenue through Aug. 1; 25 percent of clubs could close by the end of 2020. National fitness chains have filed for bankruptcy with expected closures of many facilities. Massive layoffs, many permanent closures and substantial bankruptcies are expected through the end of 2020.

The problem facing the fitness industry isn’t simply about people wanting to get back to working out; this is about saving the jobs of millions of men and women who work in the fitness industry.

We wish we didn’t need the government’s help, but sadly we do.

There are several things Congress can do to address the unique and pressing needs of the health and fitness industry. First, Congress could create a relief fund – similar to the one proposed for the restaurant industry. Second, Congress could provide direct financial assistance to the industry through loan forgiveness by passing S. 3814 – the RESTART Loan Program. Additionally, Congress should fix the mistake they made in the initial CARES Act and allow mid-sized fitness chains to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program.

I understand getting a divided Congress to act in the lead up to a presidential election is no easy feat. However, the individuals and families who rely on the jobs provided by the fitness industry simply cannot wait. We need our elected officials to rise above partisan election year politics and give our industry the help it needs.