Gyms have been among COVID-19’s most dramatically impacted victims, due to the transmission risks of packing heavily breathing people into a confined space for hours at a time. But there’s one thing the pandemic hasn’t changed: It’s still exasperatingly difficult to get out of a gym contract.
Fitness clubs have long relied on long-term membership agreements to prevent flighty customers from abandoning their New Year’s resolutions without a financial penalty. But given the public health considerations of the coronavirus pandemic, gyms’ generally stringent membership cancelation policies—specifically, requirements that members must visit a physical location or send a certified letter to terminate their contracts—have come into relief.
Information on outbreaks linked to gyms paints a hazy picture. Since the summer, numerous COVID-19 outbreaks have been tied to fitness centers, including ones in Elmhurt, Ill., San Diego, and Hawaii’s Oahu island.
Data released by the Minnesota Department of Health last week showed that 10.7% of all outbreak cases in the state can be attributed to gyms, the fourth most common setting after restaurants and bars, weddings, and sports events. This drove Minnesota’s governor to order a four-week pause on certain public gatherings, including closing gyms, last week. Yet in Louisiana, gyms only ranked 14th out of 19 setting categories in terms of linked outbreak cases. Fitness centers there can still operate at 50% capacity.
Fortune reviewed the policies of 10 of the largest fitness chains in the U.S., using a list compiled by Club Industry of companies ranked by 2018 revenue. Of those chains, five currently allow membership cancelations over the phone, online (either by email or web form), or both: 24 Hour Fitness, Life Time Fitness, Gold’s Gym, Bay Club, and Crunch Fitness. Crunch explains on its site that it allows members to cancel via email or letter because of COVID-19; the other four have no public communications explaining if their policies allowing remote cancelation have always been in place, or are new in response to the pandemic.
The policies of the remaining five—LA Fitness, Blink Fitness (a subsidiary of Equinox Holdings), Planet Fitness, Town Sports International (whose regional brands include New York Sports Clubs, Boston Sports Clubs, Philadelphia Sports Clubs, Washington Sports Clubs, and Lucille Roberts), and XSport Fitness—require members to either visit a location or send a certified letter to cancel. (According to its website, LA Fitness does not require the letter to be certified, but recommends it.)
Certified mail, which is run by the U.S. Postal Service, typically involves customers sending their letter from a physical post office location. Certified mail can be sent from home, but customers will not receive a validated receipt—which, in practice, means they can’t prove they sent the correspondence if the recipient claims not to have received it.
In maintaining their policies, the latter group of gyms, and others that encourage customers to leave their homes if they wish to cancel memberships, could exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus ravaging the nation.
“In the absence of a congressional stimulus package to help such businesses, many are resorting to policies that might, ironically, further spread of COVID-19,” Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague and a Pulitzer Prize–winning public health journalist, told Fortune in an email.
In a sign of the increasing attention on this issue, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed a law requiring gyms to offer customers easier and cheaper ways to cancel their memberships, including online or over the phone.
Fortune contacted all of the aforementioned gyms that do not allow phone or email cancelation for comment on the rationale behind their policies, but all either declined to comment or did not respond.