Gyms have been closed for almost a month because of COVID-19 — there's just not much social distancing to be had when every other guy in a muscle shirt wants to spot you or tell you what you're doing wrong. But some Miami fitness centers have continued charging their customers during the shutdown — and when the complaints inevitably rolled in, some gyms ignored those grievances for weeks.
Fight Club America, a boxing and fitness club with locations in downtown Miami and Doral, came under fire this week when the @Lifestyle_Miami Instagram account posted about members still being charged although the gyms had been closed since mid-March.
Fight Club member Guillermo Bueno tells New Times he was billed for April on March 21 — four days after Miami-Dade County issued an order shutting down all commercial gyms.
"Nobody [at Fight Club] was answering my emails or phone calls," Bueno says. "I pay $63 a month for me and my girlfriend, who just got fired from her job, and I can't be giving away money I don't have."
Fight Club isn't alone in getting backlash from members. Several gyms across the nation have been called out on social media for charging monthly fees despite coronavirus lockdowns. Health clubs in New York and Boston have even been hit with class-action lawsuits in recent days.
Florida gyms are no exception. Youfit, a health club chain headquartered in St. Petersburg, closed all locations March 17 in accordance with state and county guidelines. Nevertheless, Lena Hearn, a longtime Youfit member from Tampa, says she was charged her full membership fee of $27.11 on April 1.
Though Youfit has been sending workout videos to members, Hearn says, it doesn't merit her almost $30 monthly fee.
"They're sending free exercise programs as part of their content providing," she says. "That's not part of the contract I signed up for. I can find exercise videos on YouTube."
Hearn says she had been trying to contact Youfit to freeze or cancel her membership since nonessential businesses began to close in mid-March but never got a response.
"I called the corporate number from their website, which directs you to a local club, but local clubs are shut down. When trying to get in touch with any corporate office, it hangs up," Hearn says. "I would accept that they extend my contract or refund those months. I would've taken either one, but to have neither and have silence, that's worse."
Bryce Del Rio, a ten-year Youfit member in Sarasota, says the same thing happened to him. In mid-March, Del Rio began calling the corporate number to pause his membership but was never able to reach anyone. Then he was billed for April.
"I thought, OK, that's a little sketchy," he says. "I understand it's a tough time for everybody, but you still have to do the right thing as a business."
Nicole Nekoloff, executive director of operations for Youfit, says the company is now fielding calls from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays to help customers freeze their accounts or cancel memberships.
"With the ever-changing landscape of our situation, it took us a while to figure out what we needed to do," she says. "We've had to switch gears and are now taking calls and being very transparent."
Nekoloff says members can either call the corporate Youfit number to reach a local gym or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For people who were charged during the lockdown, Nekoloff says, discussions about refunds or credit will happen when the health clubs eventually reopen.
As for Fight Club America, owner Sandro Flores tells New Times his employees had no way of freezing or canceling members' accounts after the countywide gym closure because they could do so only from the club’s locations and not remotely.
"We had hundreds of people asking for cancellations, and my two operational employees couldn't come into work [at the time]," Flores says.
However, he says he suspended all memberships this past Tuesday, so no one will continue to be charged. Refunds can be obtained by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, he says.
But customers aren’t the only ones who've been shafted by gyms in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Across the nation, part-time and contract employees in the fitness industry have endured mass layoffs and furloughs.
In an April 2 email shared with New Times, Youfit told its members that although it had to lay off some part-time employees, it retained almost all full-time employees at full pay. The company said members’ monthly fees would be used to pay those employees and cover basic business needs.
That message came as little comfort to part-timers such as Johnathan Hunter, who worked behind the front desk at the Youfit on NE 79th Street just west of Biscayne Boulevard. Hunter says he and almost all of his co-workers were terminated with little warning and told that Youfit would try to hire them back when the lockdown was over.
Another Youfit employee shared a similar story about being laid off.
"We were told they were firing us so we could receive unemployment," says the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they hope to eventually get their job back. (Nekoloff, the Youfit spokeswoman, confirms that the company made the decision to lay off part-time employees early so they could "get to the front of the line" for unemployment benefits.)
But Hunter says his final days at work soured his relationship with Youfit. He says the company knew gyms wouldn't be open April 1, but the protocol for employees was to continue telling members that everything was business as usual. He says he was told to instruct customers to come to the club in person or send a representative if they wanted to cancel their memberships.
As late as March 17, Hunter says, his manager continued to process new memberships; Miami-Dade County made a decision to close gyms later that day.
“He signed up at least ten people that day,” Hunter says.
As his boss was enrolling new members, Hunter was fielding calls from people trying to stop future payments.
"On the last day we were open, we were getting at least ten calls a minute of people asking to cancel their account,” Hunter says. “We were told to tell them we'd be open. Then we were closed 30 minutes later.”
The employee who asked to remain anonymous tells New Times they received similar instructions from a supervisor.
"Managers laughed at the idea of Youfit getting closed. They were still taking memberships up to the end, and that's pretty messed up," the employee says. "We were told to say we were keeping our hours the same. They never really gave us a real date of closure."
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Nekoloff says Youfit’s corporate office is unaware of any instructions for employees to mislead customers about gym closures.
“To be honest, I don't know if that was a directive actually given,” she says. “Prior to this, we closed based on the mandates state-to-state, not knowing if we would have to entirely shut down the company.”
For now, Hunter says, he's been working for Uber Eats and trying to find odd jobs to make ends meet; he has no plans to return to work at Youfit after its gyms reopen.
"I was pretty pissed," he says. "I was there for a year, and I was making $10 an hour by the end. If I had to restart at starting pay, $8.50, that wouldn't pay my bills."