COVID-19: What Happens When You Complain About Denver Gym Safety

The 24 Hour Fitness branch at 4800 West 38th Avenue in the Highland neighborhood.
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The 24 Hour Fitness branch at 4800 West 38th Avenue in the Highland neighborhood.
A longtime patron of the Highland Garden 24 Hour Fitness at 4800 West 38th Avenue was thrilled when the branch was allowed to reopen after the stay-at-home order in Colorado was lifted. But his excitement over getting to work out again in one of his favorite places was quickly replaced by anxiety over what he saw as an unsafe environment. The weight room on the second floor of the facility was seriously overcrowded, he thought, with what he estimated as nearly a hundred people exercising much closer than six feet apart from each other — many were shoulder to shoulder, he noticed — with few wearing masks.

But getting someone to look into this situation has proven to be tougher than a series of squat thrusts for the customer, whom we're not naming at his request. He says he'd made multiple complaints to the city, but the department in charge of overseeing gym safety had no record of them when contacted by Westword. Meanwhile, 24 Hour Fitness insists that it's closely following all of the safety requirements in Denver, which differ from those imposed on the state as a whole — though both sets of regulations allow gym-goers to go mask-free when pumping iron.

The Colorado State Joint Information Center, which is handling communications for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment during the pandemic, outlines the process that people should use when raising health concerns about business practices during the pandemic. "Our recommendation is that residents should contact their local public health agency to report any potential violations of an order," a spokesperson notes.

The regulations related to gyms in the state's latest public-health order reads: "Gyms, recreation centers and indoor pools may open at 25 percent capacity, not to exceed 50 patrons, whichever is less, per room, maintaining six feet distancing. Sharing of equipment is discouraged, and equipment must be cleaned and disinfected between uses." Meanwhile, the CDPHE's personal-recreation guidance advises "closing off a series of lockers to promote physical distancing and reduce gatherings in restrooms, showers, and locker rooms," as well as encouraging "staff members and patrons [to] wear face coverings when they can do so safely."

Things are a bit different in the Mile High City, notes Tammy Vigil, a communications specialist for Denver Public Health and Environment. Via email, Vigil notes that "the City and County of Denver was granted a variance for indoor spaces, including gyms. For all indoor spaces, in order to achieve six feet distancing, the limit is 50 percent of the posted occupancy code, ensuring a minimum 28 square feet per person not to exceed more than fifty people gathered in a confined indoor space at any given time. This would allow for gyms to have 50 percent capacity rather than the 25 percent capacity." She adds that "patrons are required to wear a face mask when they are not actively working out: entering and exiting the building, using restrooms, moving from one workout area to another, and when in common areas."

At present, Vigil reveals, DDPHE is receiving between 90 and 100 complaints each week about safety at various businesses in Denver. Seventeen employees respond to complaints over the course of a given week, and despite the high volume of complains, including fourteen specifically related to gyms since June 1, response times have not changed. In her words, "The team is able to start the response process within 24 hours of receiving a complaint."

Nonetheless, she notes, "We have not received any complaints about 24 Hour Fitness at 4600 West 38th Avenue. Our investigator who compiled this information would be the person looking into this, and she says she has not spoken to anyone relating this facility. So she’s a little perplexed about who this resident spoke to."

The answer is a staffer at Denver's 311 Help Center. The customer provided Westword with a receipt from the center documenting the first contact, on June 22, and he says he's made two additional calls — but each time an attempt was made to transfer him to the proper department, the line was busy, causing him to worry that his complaints had fallen into a void, which definitely seems to be the case.

He also spoke to employees at the gym about his concerns and submitted commentary to 24 Hour Fitness through its online customer-service portal. The reply he received and shared with Westword from the latter is a boilerplate statement asking if he'd like to cancel his membership.

We were a bit luckier. A corporate spokesperson for 24 Hour Fitness suggests by email that "perhaps there is unfamiliarity with local public health agency guidelines and mandates. ... The County of Denver has a mask order, but does not look to require while working out. ... Additionally, the Denver County public health agency frequently-asked-questions states: 'The business owner is responsible for seeing that Denver’s Order is observed on the business premises, although a business owner is not directly responsible for compliance or enforcement beyond that.'"

The spokesperson maintains that "all of our team members in our clubs comply with the order to wear masks at all times in addition to requesting that club members do so as well. According to our confirmed documentation on club activity, including the Highland Garden club in particular, we are adhering to all public health agency guidelines. ... Our club member reservation system and other health and safety protocols for the refreshed club experience assure that we meet and exceed (the latter in most cases) the local public health agency guidelines and mandates for a fitness industry business. Post-workout club member survey results give us 4.5 out of 5 marks for exceeding in club health, safety, sanitation standards and creating a welcoming experience for members."

None of these reassurances satisfy the customer. While he thinks it's possible that the gym is limiting capacity to 100 people, he says that during his recent visits, only a handful of people were on the lower level where the treadmills are located, putting far more than fifty people in the upstairs weight room, where they were in extremely close proximity. He hopes someone with the city stops by to see what he means.

If his message ever escapes from limbo, that is.