President Donald Trump unveiled a proposal this week to reopen America’s gyms in spite of the coronavirus outbreak after a phone call that included the head of the company that owns luxury fitness brands Equinox and SoulCycle, who also happens to be a high-profile Trump supporter.
In a memo issued on Thursday titled “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” the White House included gyms among the businesses that would reopen to the general public during “phase one” of its plan to jump-start the American economy, which has cratered amid nationwide stay-at-home orders and business closures.
Though the document said gyms could open “if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols,” their inclusion nevertheless struck public health experts as bizarre.
“Gyms are like a petri dish,” said Laurence Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “People are close to one another, they’re sweating, they’re coughing and sneezing, they’re touching multiple surfaces, they’re sharing equipment, they’re indoors. Literally all of the heightened risk factors for COVID transmission are all entwined together in a gym.”
The White House’s guidance included mitigation measures that would ostensibly minimize the risk of transmission at gyms that opt to reopen, including “strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.” But Gostin said he’s not convinced that the risks of transmission could be sufficiently minimized.
“It’s very hard to socially distance. Machines are right next to each other. It’s also very hard to disinfect. You’d have to do it continuously, not just every hour,” he said. “There was certainly no attempt to put in any scientific evidence as to why they’re safe or how they could possibly be made safe.”
The decision on gyms came a day after Trump’s phone call with 16 business leaders including Bahram Akradi, chief executive of health club chain Life Time, and Stephen Ross, the founder and chairman of the Related Companies. That firm’s broad portfolio includes a vast swath of commercial and residential real estate properties, as well as Equinox Holdings, which owns its own eponymous chain of luxury gyms as well as fitness brands SoulCycle, Blink Fitness, and Pure Yoga.
Those businesses, like the larger fitness industry, have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. SoulCycle has slashed payroll and furloughed employees. Equinox and Blink have both frozen membership charges.
Arkadi has donated to prominent Republicans in the past, though not to Trump. He warned in an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s primetime Fox News show late last month that he might be forced to lay off up to 90 percent of his employees unless American businesses began to reopen.
The White House readout of Wednesday’s phone call said industry representatives—which included Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, Jimmy John Liautaud, the eponymous owner of the Jimmy John’s restaurant chain, and Phil Ruffin of Treasure Island Hotels—“shared ideas for ways their industries can safely return.”
The White House declined to comment on whether ideas presented by Ross informed its phase one guidelines. In an emailed statement, a Related spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “Stephen Ross never discussed gyms, exercise clubs or anything like that with the President and this story is factually incorrect garbage.”
“Equinox is an independent company, with multiple investors and Related doesn’t make strategic or operational decisions for them," the spokesperson added.
Ross was one of more than 200 people named to the White House’s economic recovery task forces this week, which will advise the Trump administration on policies to reverse the economic damage done by the coronavirus. He was one of 27 high-dollar donors to pro-Trump groups who made the list. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, he’s donated about $300,000 to the Republican National Committee.
Ross also hosted a fundraiser for Trump’s reelection campaign last year at his home in the Hamptons. The move drew criticism from Trump critics and calls to boycott his fitness businesses, which are among the nation’s largest by revenue. That fundraiser, combined with one other, helped the president and affiliated campaign groups raise $12 million.
As Ross endured criticism for hosting the event, Trump rushed to his defense.
“He’s a great friend of mine; he’s a very successful guy. We were competitors but friends in real estate in New York in the old days,” he told reporters. “He’s probably more inclined to be a liberal if you want to know the truth, but he likes me, he respects me.”