Late last month, the Mexican government closed all health and fitness centers for a minimum of five to seven business days because of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in that country. As I write this column, the United States is reporting more and more cases of this virus, although to date, the cases here have been less severe.

That being said, we don't know how big this virus might get. And even if this one does not become the pandemic that the media is making it out to be, another pandemic could be just around the corner. At the very least, the regular cold and flu season can cause illness throughout your club.

You must be able to answer your members' concerns about cleanliness. And if a pandemic occurs, you must be prepared for possible club closings, which would mean having to put club protocols in place.

Here are some steps to implement if H1N1 or another virus becomes a major health threat in the United States:

  • Have procedures in place for properly closing the club. From turning off lights to turning off the sauna, you should use your nightly closing log to ensure the club is safely closed until further notice.

  • Set up an 800 number or local phone number for your staff and members to call to get daily updates about when you will reopen.

  • Inform local media about your closure, and list your 800 number or phone number for people to find out more information.

  • Send an e-mail blast to all members alerting them of the club's closure and the reasons for it.

  • Update your Web site to inform everyone about your club's closure.

  • Place signs on your club's doors informing members and staff about the closure.

Germs are a big part of the health club world because we host thousands of members in our facilities each day. According to a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Arizona, one out of every five surfaces in places like airports, offices, day care centers and shopping centers are contaminated. The researchers took samples from more than 800 public surfaces in four U.S. cities and tested those samples for the presence of fecal matter and for the presence of protein, which generally indicates hygiene. They measured levels of three biochemical markers, each of which could contain illness-causing substances: hemoglobin, which indicates the presence of blood; alpha-amylase, which indicates the presence of mucus, saliva and/or urine; and urea, which indicates the presence of urine.

Based upon the results, the researchers determined the top 10 most germ-infected public places. Topping the list were playgrounds — where 44 percent of the surfaces tested positive for bodily fluids. Playgrounds were followed in order by bus rails/armrests, public rest rooms, shopping cart handles, escalator handrails, chair armrests, vending machine buttons, shared pens, public telephones and elevator buttons.

Fortunately, fitness centers weren't tested and, thus, weren't listed. However, sooner or later, they could be.

In the next part of the study, the researchers wanted to determine how easily people transferred germs from one place to another. The researchers used a dye placed on surfaces as a substitute for germs to track the spread of the dye (i.e., germs). The people in the study spread the dye from the original surfaces to their faces, hair, desktops, pens, computer keyboards and other personal items. If these people had then gone to a gym, I'm sure the dye would have been tracked there, too. It goes to show that once people pick up germs elsewhere, they can bring them into our clubs. Thus, we are as susceptible as any business to someone contracting a disease, such as H1N1, through use of our facilities.

So how do people/members/staff keep as germ free as possible, and how do we as club operators do the same?

First and foremost, as President Barack Obama said in his televised press conference in late April, wash your hands. This means doing what we've all been told millions of times but we may not follow through with all the time — washing your hands after you use the rest room, before you eat and prepare food, after you come home from work, the supermarket or anywhere else. Employees/team members should wash their hands prior to using the club's equipment and throughout the day. Trainers should wash their hands prior to each person they train, much like a doctor does before and after seeing a patient. Group exercise instructors/teachers should wash their hands after touching mats, weights and other equipment in group exercise rooms. Front desk staff should wash hands regularly after touching people's membership cards, pens and money. Kids club attendants should wash their hands when they come in to work, after touching toys and children with dirty diapers and before they go home.

Researchers recommend routinely disinfecting frequently touched surfaces both at home and at work. Are you wiping down machines multiple times per day? Are you deep cleaning the shower and wet areas daily? Are you cleaning carpets at least monthly, especially in areas like your kids club? Are you changing the water in mop buckets rather than mopping a cardio floor with dirty water from another area of the club? Do you offer spray bottles and wipes in the workout areas for members to use? If not, you should offer them, since many members seek out wipes.

Using a towel during your workouts to wipe down the equipment after use should be mandatory. If you offer towels, make sure they are cleaned at a high temperature to ensure all germs and bacteria are killed. Often, club owners look to cut back on boiler temperatures to save money. By doing so, you risk not killing all germs and bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that to stop the spread of germs, you should cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; clean your hands often; stay home when you are sick; check with a health care provider when needed; and practice other good health habits. As club operators, you need to communicate these good, basic practices to your staff members.

Also as club operators, you must ensure that you protect your members and staff at all times. Germs are everywhere, so no matter how often you wash your hands or how clean you think you keep your facilities, you must remain diligent in your quest to keep your clubs clean. The last thing you want to hear is that a club — especially your club — was ground zero for swine flu or some other disease within your community.

Mark Mastrov, founder of 24 Hour Fitness, is now an investor in various business opportunities through his company, New Evolution Fitness Co. You can reach him at mark.mastrov@fitnessbusinesspro.com.