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Fitness Gyms Lobby Government for 'Infrastructure' Aid

Paul Steinbach

Gyms, fitness centers and related facilities are hoping a bill that would provide $30 billion in aid could end up becoming part of a huge infrastructure package expected to pass through Congress later this year through budget reconciliation.

“I think that this is a great candidate for the infrastructure package because fitness facilities are an essential part of our health and fitness infrastructure,” Brett Ewer, part of the Community Gyms Coalition and head of government relations at CrossFit, told MarketWatch. “They are the front line of primary prevention. If you look at the data on COVID mortality, it’s highly, highly linked with obesity, and obesity responds to exercise.”

IHRSA ramped up its spending on Washington lobbying to $498,000 last year, up from just $148,000 in 2019, according to date aggregated by OpenSecrets.org. The trade association hired two additional lobbying firms for “added power,” though that approach didn’t end up delivering in 2020, according to executive vice president of public policy Helen Durkin, adding that IHRSA’s members have in recent months focused more on talking directly to their lawmakers about the need for aid.

That's where the so-called GYMS Act comes in.

“Not much is going through Congress unless it can fit in that reconciliation or infrastructure, so we think that it can fit in that,” Durkin said. According to MarketWatch, Durkin said around 80 House lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors for the bipartisan GYMS Act, and support in the Senate is “looking good,” with an introduction of legislation in that chamber likely to come “shortly.”

Industry revenue fell by about 58 percent in 2020 amid shutdowns to fight COVID’s spread, and between one-sixth and one-fifth of U.S. gyms or fitness centers had closed for good as of the end of last year, according to the Community Gyms Coalition, formed last fall to “add a little extra punch” to the industry’s lobbying efforts, according to Ewer. Payroll protection programs aren't helping gyms as much as other industries, since rent tops most gyms' expense list.

“I know that there’s sort of a feeling of ‘Maybe Congress is ready just to move on,' ” Durkin said, adding, “Even though clubs in every state are now open, they’re still operating at significant capacity limitations, so it’s not over for us yet.”

Durkin pointed to a study released earlier this week that links lack of exercise to higher risk of severe COVID outcomes.

“Helping the gyms industry isn’t just helping another industry,” she said. “It’s really helping the health of each community, and I think that’s a really important part not to miss. And that’s the part — when they have that conversation with the members of Congress — that clubs are breaking through and making them understand.”

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