For Jonathan Levitt, it was the tale of two gyms. A member of both Boston Sports Club and the Boston University’s Fitness and Recreation Center, he had two wildly different experiences as each facility closed down in early March due to the advancing pandemic.
More than one in five Americans belong to at least one gym, according to a report by the International Health, Racquet & Sports Association (IHRSA). The average cost of membership is about $60 a month, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. Getting out of those memberships can be tricky in the best of times, so what options do gym-goers have now?
In the midst of massive shutdowns, the policies fitness centers and gyms are developing in regard to members’ fees and employee salaries are as varied as the gyms themselves. That means depending on where you work out, you may be notified about an easy, automatic account freeze or you may experience several unreturned calls as you try to get information. As a result, some businesses are earning member and staff loyalty, while others are ensuring clients will turn elsewhere.
With Levitt’s two gyms, one took the rising crisis to communicate with members and develop a policy most can live with.
“The Boston University rec center let us know they’d be halting billing and freezing our memberships, pro-rating us when they reopen,” the 29-year-old sales manager for Inside Tracker, says. “BSC, on the other hand, closed on March 17 with no further notice.” Levitt has tried multiple times to contact the second gym for an answer on how it will be handling his monthly $52 monthly fee, but to no avail.
He’s not alone; BSC is owned by parent company Town Sports International, which includes New York Sports Club under its umbrella. Hundreds of angry customers there took to the gym's Facebook page to complain, and last week, a class action lawsuit filed against the parent company alleges it of making it impossible to cancel memberships. (The company also sent a note to clients last week saying it'd resolve concerns when gyms re-opened.)
In Anchorage, Alaska, 38-year old IT professional Brandon Wood had just joined chain Planet Fitness in January, taking advantage of new year pricing. At the beginning of March, his local facility had to close due to government mandate. Ironically, Wood had been trying to cancel his membership just before that point, but was charged and listed as active when he logged into his account.
Within about a week, however, Wood received word from the company that it would be freezing memberships. He was happy to finally receive the news, but he was a bit upset with the slow response.
“I had reached out to the corporate office and was told I had to take it up with my local gym because they are a franchise,” he says. “But I couldn’t do that because it was closed and there was no one answering the phone.”
Planet Fitness has since offered an official statement on the matter, confirming the frozen membership policy and also offering members access to online content, including Facebook Live daily workouts delivered by “trainers and special guests.”
Some of how fitness centers have responded is hinged on size and agility. For 120-member gym Recharge in Ellicott City, MD, constant communication with members and a quick pivot to online content appears to have kept members happy. Co-owner Gene Shirokobrod says that to date, the facility has lost just one member.
Recharge allowed each member to come into the facility ahead of the shutdown to borrow two pieces of equipment for home use. Each day, coaches from the gym upload a variety of new workout options to Recharge's app, in addition to offering three daily live sessions.
How to Cancel Your Membership
In many states, if your gym isn’t providing you with a service, you have the right to cancel, says Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, a New York-based attorney specializing in consumer advocacy. If you’ve decided you need to cancel your membership, here are some tips:
Don't pay to re-join: If you'll want to return to the same gym in the future, try suspending your membership rather than cancelling it to avoid paying a fee to re-join later on.
Start with who you know: If you have a relationship with a manager, it may be easier to begin the process of suspending or canceling your membership with a phone call to him or her, Frei-Peason says.
Stop payments: If the gym is unresponsive and you really need the money that is going to be charged to your credit card or withdrawn from your account, you can stop the payment, says Dee Pridgen, a retired law professor from the University of Wyoming, who taught on consumer protection and contract law. For autopay on a credit card, you should contact your credit card company and tell the company to stop the auto pay. Have the listing from a previous statement ready so you can tell the credit card company the exact name of the gym on your statements and the date payments should stop. If the payments are being deducted directly from a bank account, then tell your bank you are “revoking authorization.” The CFPB has guidelines on that here.
There is one important note of caution here: if a gym is in financial trouble and your contract doesn't allow for cancellation due to temporary closures (again, some states require this), there is a chance the gym could sell your unpaid bills to a debt collector, Pridgen said in an email. If that happens, you should be prepared to show up and argue that the gym was not providing the services outlined in the contract.
Get it (and put it) in writing: Make sure you get anything your gym offers you in writing, whether that's a suspended membership, a refund, or a credit to use time you've already paid for in the future, Pridgen says. An e-mail or text message will work if that's all you can get. On the same note, you should also put your decisions in writing. For example, if you've stopped payments, finalize that with a letter informing the gym that you're no longer paying and would like to cancel. Be sure to explain why you've stopped payments with details that include how long the gym has been closed and the other methods you attempted to resolve the issue prior to stopping payments.
File a complaint: Pridgen recommends all consumers who are being charged for gym services they are not getting file a complaint with their state's attorney general. The National Association of Attorneys General has a round up of all the actions attorneys general have take around the country in response to coronavirus-related scams and complaints. Here's a page where you can file complaints.
For Levitt, the Boston gym-goer who had such different experiences, he plans to reevaluate where he spends his money when gyms do reopen. “BSC is so convenient for me, it’s hard not to continue there," he says. "But morally, I’d like to drop.”
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