Most health and fitness clubs impose months' long contracts with their members, with fees paid monthly or in lump sums. But as these facilities across the country responded to the need (or government directive) to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, members naturally wanted to know whether their obligations to pay monthly fees would be suspended, whether they are entitled to a refund on fees already paid, or whether they could cancel their contracts. Targeted laws in some states address this question; in states lacking specific laws, more general consumer protection laws might apply.
At least eight states have specific laws aimed at stopping or remedying deceptive and unfair practices by health clubs and gyms, such as:
The sections below look at cancellation rights in states that have specific health club laws. Gym members who live in other states are not out of luck, however. Several garden-variety consumer protection laws, widely enacted in every state, might come to their assistance, as explained in "General Consumer Protection Laws," below.
States that have passed consumer-friendly health and gym facility laws provide for varying degrees of protection.
California law clearly addresses the elimination or reduction of services. Members have the right to cancel if, "at any time during the term of the contract…the health studio eliminates or substantially reduces the scope of the facilities… that were described in the contract, in an advertisement relating to the specific location, or in a written offer, and available to the consumer upon execution of the contract… the consumer may cancel the contract and receive a pro rata refund." (Calif. Civil Code Section 1812.85(c).) Moreover, members who pay large amounts up-front have the right to cancel for any reason within 30 and 45 days of signing their contracts.
Connecticut addresses cessation of operations this way: "… if the health club ceases operation at the location where the buyer entered into the contract, the buyer … shall be relieved of any further obligation for payment under the contract not then due and owing." (Conn Gen Stat. Ann. Sections 21a-216 and following.) A gym might argue that a temporary closure is not a cessation of operations.
Under its Physical Fitness Services Act, members have rights to cancel within three days of signing the contract, but the law doesn't address cancellation rights if the facility closes. Instead, "The customer's rights to cancel described herein are in addition to any other contract rights or remedies provided by law…." (815 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann Section 645/8 and following.) In other words, members need to look to their general consumer protection laws (see below).
The law in Louisiana gives members a right of cancellation in a roundabout way: The facility must give new members a written list of equipment and services. If any of these services are "materially changed," the member may cancel the contract. (La. Rev. Stat. Ann. Sections 51:1576 and following.)
Gym members in Massachusetts may cancel their contract "…if the health club services or facilities are not available to the buyer because the seller… substantially changes the operation of the health club or location. " (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann ch93, Sections 80 and following.)
In New York, members may cancel "…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." (N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law Sections 620 and following.)
The state's Health Club Act provides that if the facility temporarily closes for 30 days or less, members are entitled to an extension of their contract equal to the number of days of closure. For closures over 30 days, where the facility doesn't offer a comparable location within ten miles, members are entitled to a refund. (73 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. Sections 2161 and following.)
If your state doesn't have a law covering health clubs, a general consumer protection law, like an unfair or deceptive acts or practices (UDAP) statute, might help you. UDAP laws, which are are state statutes of general applicability, ban deceptive practices in consumer transactions; they also usually prohibit unfair practices, and some forbid unconscionable acts. UDAP laws are very broad, and just about any unfair business practice is potentially a UDAP violation.
All states, as well as the District of Columbia, have UDAP statutes. This kind of law comes in various forms and has different names, but is usually called something like a:
When an unexpected event—like a closure due to a pandemic—isn't covered under a health club law or the terms of a gym contract, a UDAP statute often offers a versatile remedy for wronged consumers. These laws usually provide strong relief, like the right to get multiple damages (or minimum damages) and attorneys' fees.
If a closed health club or gym charges your credit card, you can ask the credit card company to do a chargeback. You have two different ways to challenge charges for services you didn't receive: by asserting a claim or defense or filing a billing error dispute. (A charge for services you didn't get often counts as a "billing error.") Sometimes one way applies, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Each has different requirements and limits.
In either case, you'll need to notify the credit card company about your claim or dispute by sending a letter via certified mail or going online. If you mail a letter, be sure you send it to the address designated for this purpose; look on your statement, your credit card agreement, or online to get this information.
You won't have to pay that portion of your credit card bill while the dispute is pending. To keep the money, the gym will have to convince the credit card company that it's entitled to the funds—a tough argument to win.