Students react after Hadley Planet Fitness bars UMass students due to COVID-19 risk

Students are left with few outlets for physical activity amid monotony of online classes and homebound isolation

C2 Design Group

C2 Design Group

By Chris McLaughlin, Assistant News Editor

Following the University of Massachusetts’ increase of its COVID-19 risk level from “Elevated” to “High,” which forced all students on- and off-campus into a two-week long self-sequestration period, the nearby Planet Fitness in Hadley posted a message to those UMass students.

“ATTENTION MEMBERS: Unfortunately, due to UMASS moving to ‘high risk’ the Hadley Board of Health has informed us that we are not able to provide services at this time to both on- and off-campus UMASS students,” a sign posted at the gym’s entrance read.

UMass closed its own Recreation Center due to the increased risk level and instituted now defunct measures prohibiting outdoor exercise, including walking outdoors. This left many students with few options for maintaining their physical health and wellbeing, particularly amid frigid winter weather.

“I don’t know if I necessarily agree with shutting down something like the gym where a lot of people may go to work out and to remain healthy,” Alex Ladd said. The senior finance major lives off campus and has regularly attended the Hadley Planet Fitness since the fall semester.

“It helps me a lot with controlling my mental health and it also supports me doing better academically and kind of having a healthier and more balanced mind,” Ladd added.

He said he hasn’t had many opportunities during the pandemic to leave his off-campus residence, wanting to abide by community health and safety guidelines.

However, Ladd said, “The gym kind of had been that outlet that I could go to where I just got a couple hours to leave the house, focus on getting stronger, having a healthier mind versus thinking about everything that’s going on.”

Sophomore political science major Josh Lewis, a recent transfer student from Brandeis University who lives on campus, faced similar disappointment upon learning about Planet Fitness’ policy.

Lewis, who described himself as a “very active person, going to the gym multiple times a week,” said he was excited to try out the campus Recreation Center and that it was a motivator for coming to live at UMass, only to have his hopes dashed when the increased risk level shuttered it.

As an alternative, Lewis turned to the Hadley Planet Fitness, a short bus ride away for him, only to be turned away there mere days after signing up for a membership. He said he found out about the policy on Feb. 7 as he was ready to begin his workout.

“When I approached the desk to check in, I was asked if I was a UMass student (I was wearing a UMass mask) to which I answered yes,” Lewis wrote in an email. “The woman at the desk then said ‘I’m sorry but we’re not letting UMass students because of the current [COVID] situation. They told us not to let you guys in.’”

Lewis said he was “furious” and stormed out after the interaction.

“We really want to be able to work out, I mean there’s not much else to do right now,” Ryan D’Alleva, a junior journalism and English double major living off-campus. “If we’re just sitting here focused on classes 24/7 it’s going to drive us crazy.”

“This semester especially, I would say fitness, exercising, doing something that can get your endorphins running, it’s really just essential,” D’Alleva said. “Sometimes if I don’t go to the gym for like a week or something, I’ll start feeling off and I won’t even notice, I won’t even realize why.”

“In the end it’s going and getting that exercise, doing something productive like that that keeps me going,” D’Alleva said. “Taking away the gym is one less source of that.”

D’Alleva said he called the Northampton location farther away to see if he and his roommates could get in there. But that location had enacted a similar policy for UMass students.

Students interviewed are still largely paying membership fees despite not having access to the gym’s services.

It costs D’Alleva $22 per month for a Planet Fitness Black Card membership, which allows him to use any Planet Fitness location. However, he said that he may not pursue any sort of reimbursement or freeze in fees for lost time yet because ideally, he’d like to return to the gym as soon as possible. D’Alleva added he may reconsider if the ban extends beyond two weeks after it was enacted.

He was told by Planet Fitness that their “target” date for reopening to UMass students would be Feb. 21 or 22.

The Daily Collegian reached out to the Hadley Planet Fitness by phone earlier this week and was directed to contact a manager by email with regard to any questions. Despite repeated request for interview or comment, the Collegian has not since received any response.

Lewis said that he called the business back after requesting a refund on the spot when he was initially denied service on Feb. 7 and was given the option over the phone to freeze his account or get two weeks for free, to which he chose the latter.

“They were actually very good about it,” he said, but noted that Planet Fitness did not reach out to him either by email or via its app concerning the policy and how to receive compensation other than the employee at the front desk telling him to call back to speak with a manager.

Despite unanimous disappointment and frustration among those interviewed, a general consensus emerged about the volume of UMass students using the Hadley facility and the potential risk involved due to the large spike in positive COVID-19 cases.

Ladd noted during the fall semester Planet Fitness could become “pretty crowded,” forcing gym members to wait in line outside due to capacity limits.

“Just before they kind of barred UMass students, there was much longer lines,” Ladd said. “I think they might’ve reduced capacity this semester before they resorted to what they just did.”“Obviously that’s a little inconvenient, but definitely a whole different world than not really being able to go at all,” he added.

Lewis said the closing of the UMass Recreation Center compounded the issue of making Planet Fitness a more likely source of contagion.

“Not having the Rec Center open, that honestly makes it more dangerous for the surrounding community because it’s now forcing people to go to these gyms,” he said.

On Feb. 7, the Hadley Board of Health issued an emergency order that temporarily applied a “reduction in capacity limitations and associated rules to local COVID-19 Safety Rules,” directly in response to rising UMass cases and the board’s concerns for the Hadley community as a result.

“In support of this Order, the Board of Health hereby finds that the Governor’s orders lifting certain restrictions put into place to slow the spread of COVID-19 were premature and, due to unique characteristics of the region that the Town is located in, the new relaxed restrictions will not be sufficient to protect public health, safety and welfare in the Town of Hadley,” the board wrote on Facebook.

D’Alleva said that while he thought it was ultimately the right decision for safety’s sake, he couldn’t speak to whether Planet Fitness necessarily had the right as a business to specifically target and deny service to UMass students.

Ladd said he understood the rise in cases was “concerning” for local businesses and actions needed to be taken to limit the virus’ spread but suggested against a blanket ban on all UMass students.

He offered a solution in which students must show a recent negative test in order to enter the gym.

All students interviewed said they would attempt to keep physically active largely from the isolation of their homes and dorms if they had to, at least until Planet Fitness reopens its doors to UMass students. Yet they also described the limitations to home exercise, ranging from improper environments to lack of full equipment, making home settings difficult to mimic a real gym.

On Feb. 14, Sally Linowski, UMass’ associate deans for off-campus student life, sent an email to off-campus students updating them on safety guidance for outdoor exercise following UMass’ change in policy on the matter.

“[S]tudents may now responsibly participate in additional outdoor exercise, taking precaution to maintain physical distance and remain masked at all times.” Linowksi wrote.

Additional guidance included exercising alone or with other members of one’s household and maintaining physical distance at all times when exercising with a partner. Linowski also encouraged students to stay in their neighborhood and urged them restrict all travel out of the immediate area.

“Exercising outdoors is important for your physical, mental and emotional health,” Linowski said, but added all other restrictions remain in place until at least Feb. 21.

Chris McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ChrisMcLJournal.