Fawnia Soo Hoo, who used to work out almost every day at her local franchise-owned Crunch gym, was happy when the gym froze her membership in mid-March. Gyms across the country shut down abruptly once it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading through US communities, and Fawnia (a friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, New York City) didn’t want to pay for something she couldn’t use. Then, when gyms were allowed to open with restrictions in early September, the usual $49 charge appeared on her credit card.
She began emailing addresses she found on Crunch’s corporate site, but got a message back noting that “our systems are frozen and our staff is minimal.” When her gym outpost opened, she called directly to cancel but was told she had to visit in person to do so. Frustrated, she did what many people do in situations like this — she angry-tweeted:
Hey @CrunchGym, ironic that you're making me go in-person to freeze my membership, when the reason behind freezing my membership is because I'M TERRIFIED TO GO INSIDE A GYM and catch Covid-19. Why do you not have remote customer service to handle this?— Fawnia Soo Hoo (@fawnianewyork) September 2, 2020
After getting only automated responses to her various emails questioning this requirement, Fawnia finally went in. She was given a form indicating she would have to pay a fee to freeze the membership. Eventually she was told the fee would be waived, but at that point she just wanted to cancel, having been so frustrated by the “bad customer service and inconsistent information.” Ultimately, she was able to cancel without any sort of financial penalty. (Crunch did not respond to requests for comment.)
As for when she might consider going back to a gym to work out? “There has to be a viable vaccine, so I guess I’m probably not going back for like two years,” she says, adding that she loves group fitness classes and misses doing them in person. “It sucks.”
As gyms around the country started reopening in recent weeks, members have been questioning whether they feel safe going back. Gyms, by their very nature, include people huffing and puffing in very close proximity. There’s increasing evidence that aerosol transmission is an important factor in coronavirus infection, meaning that social distancing might not be enough in poorly ventilated areas. Although masks can theoretically help, they can be uncomfortable to wear during hard cardio workouts, their efficacy decreases as they become wet and sweaty, and not every state requires them. We’re in a golden age of at-home streaming workouts, and many gym buffs are opting for that instead, at least for the short term.
In the last few months, several gym chains have been slapped with lawsuits after members alleged they were still being charged while the gyms were closed. Chains have also been declaring bankruptcy at an unprecedented rate. Fawnia’s experience trying to cancel isn’t uncommon, but hers is actually better than some. Every state and municipality has different rules, making the process a free-for-all.
The pandemic has added a layer of frustration and hoop-jumping to a process that was already fraught and opaque and difficult for consumers even in the best of times.
It’s always been hard to cancel a gym membership
There’s a Friends episode that features Chandler bemoaning how difficult it is to cancel his gym membership. Ross offers to go with him for support but ends up joining the gym too. Chandler says, “We’re doomed. They’re gonna take fifty bucks out of our accounts for the rest of our lives.”
Yep. That’s the model, and it’s been that way for decades. (The boutique fitness model, which allows people to pay per class or for packages, upended that a bit in recent years, but a contract is still the main way most gyms make money.)
In California, there’s a consumer protection law for gym members that dates back to the 1960s. “You’ll see decades-old history of how much flimflammery there has been historically in the provision of membership to gyms. They decided this was the economic model they wanted, contracted as long as possible,” says Ted Mermin, the interim executive director of the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice and a former deputy attorney general in the state. “If you see gyms as folks who want to make a buck, you’ll see various reasons for why they might structure their contracts the way that they have.”
A lot of gyms require members wishing to cancel to show up in person or send a certified letter. Contracts are often worded in such a way that they’re impossible to break, unless you move or have a serious medical condition. Through the years, people have initiated lawsuits against Equinox for “unreasonable” cancellation policies, Orangetheory for hidden cancellation fees, LA Fitness for misrepresenting its monthly-membership renewal policies, and Washington Sports Clubs for “deceptive” cancellation and billing policies. The Better Business Bureau website is filled with lists of hundreds of complaints against gyms by people who claim they’re being blocked from canceling.
But what about when there’s the potential to contract a serious medical condition at the gym?
Canceling a gym membership during a pandemic can be even harder
“I do feel bad,” Fawnia says of canceling her membership. “I’m sure Covid hitting was not great for them.”
The pandemic has been near catastrophic for gyms. There are 40,000 to 50,000 gyms that serve about 73 million people in the US, according to a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade association representing the industry. The spokesperson noted that while gym attendance is limited to 25 to 50 percent capacity in many states, gyms are still required to pay 100 percent of their costs. The IHRSA estimates that without financial relief, 25 percent could close by the end of the year. So they need every penny right now.
Some chains — 24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Town Sports, which owns New York Sports Club and Boston Sports Club, among others — have already declared bankruptcy.
Then there are the pending lawsuits members have filed. LA Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Town Sports, and Planet Fitness are all facing potential legal action from members who say they have been charged even while the gyms were closed. Town Sports earmarked as much as a reported $850,000 to pay back members.
YogaWorks, a chain of yoga studios owned by private equity firm Great Hills Partners, has been attracting ire on social media, mostly from people who are being charged and can’t get through.
“Due to the unprecedented nature of the Covid pandemic and the extremely rapid location closures and associated staff furloughs, there were large points of contact gaps where customers just didn’t know where to go because their normal studio location and associated point of contact went offline,” CEO Brian Cooper wrote in an email to me when I reached out to ask about the complaints. “No student has been denied a refund or cancellation or purposely ignored, we are just dealing with a backlog issue and closing any communication gaps.”
How to get gyms’ attention
If you’ve been getting charged and your gym isn’t open, it’s fairly straightforward that, unless the contract is pretty draconian, gyms probably need to reimburse you or credit you. Many gyms are extending memberships to credit months they were closed. But if you want to cancel, first figure out whether your gym is franchised — meaning it’s owned by an individual owner — or corporate-owned. You should call or email any pertinent contacts you can find. Sometimes the corporate office can help you find a more direct line of communication with the franchisee.
Once you do find a contact, it may be necessary to send a stronger message to gyms. Berkeley’s Mermin recommends that “when you send your letter to the gym describing in detail what happened, CC those people whom the gym would really like not to hear the story,” like a local attorney general, district attorney, department of consumer affairs, or even the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission. (Although the FTC did not return a request for comment for this story, so maybe they’re too busy.) He also recommends searching for company executives and the company’s general counsel via Google and LinkedIn and escalating your complaints up the chain of command.
Mermin also recommends checking in with your local assembly person or state senator. Those officials may have some guidance for residents or may already be aware of problems at local establishments and can assist. Filing an official complaint at the Better Business Bureau will get the attention of companies, too.
It’s a little muddier when gyms are technically open and start charging you but you don’t want to go, like Fawnia’s situation. I’m a member at Equinox, and I was shocked that after reopening, they cancelled with no questions asked when I requested it.
“The most ethical will allow you out and they may also be the most clear-eyed,” says Mermin, meaning that perhaps gyms realize that they don’t want to alienate anyone willing to pay luxury membership fees, because they’re going to be competing for those members once they feel safe to come back to the gym.
While contract law differs in every state, according to New York State law, a member can cancel membership “after the services are no longer available or substantially available as provided in the contract because of the seller’s permanent discontinuance of operation or substantial change in operation.” Gyms in NYC aren’t allowed to have group classes, so that’s a potential argument that they aren’t providing full services. In the worst case scenario, you may need to consult an attorney, depending on your state’s laws.
Finally, forums like Reddit are full of advice that you should cancel the charge with the bank that holds your credit card. A representative for Mastercard said in an email that card holders and gyms enter into a contract, and there may not be recourse to cancel. But the rep said to call your bank directly. Canceling your entire credit card is the nuclear option, but then you may incur fees from your bank for doing that.
And if worse comes to worst, there’s always rage tweeting. “Shame ‘em,” says Mermin. “It’s a valuable tool.”