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'The forgotten pieces': Fitness center owners feel overlooked by Covid relief efforts

Depression, drug overdose, ailing mental health and weight gain are the side effects of an industry struggling to survive.
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As Covid-19 spread across the country and local governments instituted restrictions and closures to keep infections from rising, fitness studios and gyms were often the first and hardest hit. Now, almost a year since Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package to help struggling Americans get back on their feet, one sector feels largely abandoned.

“Gyms are the forgotten pieces. We talk about payroll protection programs and restaurants and everyone kind of understands that because everyone goes to restaurants and bars,” Dale King, owner of a CrossFit gym in Portsmouth, Ohio, told NBC News in a phone interview.

Nearly half of all fitness studios around the country are expected to close their doors permanently if they don’t receive the needed relief. In a last ditch effort, thousands of small gym owners are asking Congress for billions in funding so they can make payroll, pay rent, and implement changes to comply with Covid-related restrictions.

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“I really kind of hate to ask for federal funding. But at this point, I'm looking at it more as an investment in our healthcare system in general,” said King, an Army veteran.

“The industry hasn't had as much muscle behind it as restaurants or theaters, but we have been trying to figure out how to get there, how to have a seat at the table in these conversations,” said Debra Strougo, the founder of Row House, a chain of rowing machine gyms.


The Health and Fitness Recovery Act, which is expected to be re-introduced in the House in the next few weeks, would establish a $30 billion fund to “provide structured relief to health and fitness service establishments.”

“We need help, and we need Congress to stand up for these businesses, not just restaurants and bars and nightclubs and entertainment — but gyms have been severely impacted,” said Douglas in a phone interview.

“We are not quite sure how to get to the other side of this — especially in the areas where studios are still closed,” said Strougo.

Strougo and other business owners are scheduled to meet with lawmakers next week. They see this time as a critical window for members of Congress to hear their concerns as lawmakers hammer out the details of the next relief package.


Depression, drug overdose, ailing mental health and weight gain are the side effects of an industry struggling to survive.

Personally impacted by the wide-ranging benefits of exercise on mental health, Dixon Douglas first opened CycleBar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after he was diagnosed with depression in 2015.

“People go to gyms so that they can de-stress, Covid-19 has caused so much stress in everyday lives that when you are shutting down someone's relief, it is like taking away their medicine,” he said.

Debra Strougo says she hears countless stories of increased low self-esteem due to weight gain during the pandemic, and some of her clients are facing even more severe challenges.

“We have one woman who is pre-diabetic and had to go back on medication because she was normally able to handle it in the gym, and she didn't have to take her medication anymore,” Strougo said.


While the nation has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic for the last 11 months, the prescription drug epidemic has also been on the rise. Overdoses, which were at their lowest in 25 years just two years ago, are once again reaching record highs.

King’s gym is located in the epicenter of the opioid crisis in Scioto County, Ohio. He’s been on a mission to help addicts turn their lives around by training them in his gym. Now, with pandemic-related restrictions keeping him from seeing clients in person, King decided to rent out equipment to members and check in virtually. But he says it’s just not the same.

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King said one of the men he’s trained in his gym for years overdosed and passed away last week. Data from the Ohio Attorney General’s office shows overdose deaths in the state are the highest they’ve been in 10 years.

“Unfortunately, it happens. It's happening more due to the pandemic," he said. "I really believe that's a really underreported thing.”


When many studios were forced to close down, owners like Douglas worked hard to ensure that the outreach they did within the community wasn’t also halted.

Douglas sees charity as a core pillar of his business. His cycling studio has raised over $55,000 for the Winston-Salem community since they opened three years ago. Despite the financial hardships he is faced with, Douglas says everyone in the community needs to turn up for one another — now more than ever.

“If we're not working together as small businesses, we're not going to succeed. We're not going to see the end of this together. We are one community,” said Douglas.