Michael James Nuells is a gym rat. The special events manager spent one to two hours three to five times a week working out at the Planet Fitness near his Toluca Lake, Calif., home until March 16. That’s when Los Angeles County issued the stay-at-home order that closed his gym.

Nuells has now decided he no longer wishes to patronize any gym, at least through the end of 2020. Like many fitness enthusiasts, he is hesitant about returning to an environment that encourages people to breathe hard, sweat and use shared equipment, surrounded by dozens of other people doing the same.

When fitness centers closed nationwide because of the coronavirus outbreak, most suspended dues or allowed members to quit without penalty, though it’s worth noting that some were so reluctant to do so that they were slapped with a federal class-action lawsuit.

Now, as states reopen, gyms are ramping up operations, touting their adherence to local and state safety protocols and welcoming members. But what if you aren’t ready to go back? Can your health club still charge you? Are you entitled to a refund? Do you need to go to court?

“Gyms are notoriously hard to quit, because most clubs do not want to allow the member to cancel their contract once they realize the hard work and commitment involved in becoming fit,” said New York City attorney David Reischer, who focuses on contract disputes. “These contracts are drafted in such a way as to not to allow you to quit without suffering a penalty.”  

Steven Katz, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, specializing in contract litigation, said because operations range from small, independently owned gyms to chains, cancellation policies vary widely. This has remained true during the pandemic.

For example, at the time of writing, Retro Fitness, which franchises 132 full-service gyms in 14 states, allows members to call their local club and say they want to cancel; 24 Hour Fitness, one of the chains embroiled in a lawsuit over dues refunds, allows you to cancel your membership online.

LA Fitness, also facing a lawsuit, has a printable cancellation form you must mail in, while the Gold’s Gym website says cancellations must be handled by your individual gym location.

In an email, Life Time’s public relations manager, Amy Williams, said: “Members are free to cancel or put their membership on hold.” Regarding Planet Fitness, which is also being sued over dues, a spokesperson said that because a majority of its locations are owned and operated by individual franchise owners, members who are uncomfortable returning can discuss options with their local club.

If your gym remains closed, you should be excused from paying dues, but if it reopens and strictly follows local and state guidelines, you are probably bound by your contract, Katz said, including regarding cancellation. That doesn’t mean you are stuck if you feel queasy at even the thought of lacing up your sneakers. Here are some steps to take:

Check the club’s website. Most have posted their response to the coronavirus, including new policies, procedures and protocols. What are the changes to club hours and operations? How will they keep the workout environment clean and make it easy to maintain social distancing? Is there any information on membership billing or fees? Are there instructions if you want to cancel?

Try talking. Call the gym owner or manager if you aren’t comfortable returning and ask what they can do for you. Especially for a small gym, that’s all it may take, said Andrew Alfano, chief executive of Retro Fitness.

“We are in the people business, and there’s no benefit for any gym to create a challenge for its members.”

Whether you speak over the phone or talk face to face, follow up in writing by email or snail mail (with a return receipt) that you are stopping your membership and why, Katz said.

Review your contract. This should be the one you signed, not a generic one posted online, Reischer said. If you don’t have a copy, ask your gym for it.

Note the specific terms of your contract, such as how many months you have left. There may be circumstances under which you can cancel your membership without penalty or for a small fee. For example, if you have a compromised immune system, you may just need a physician’s note.

Hit the pause button. Like Life Time, many fitness centers are allowing members to “pause” or “freeze” their membership. By doing so, dues are waived or you pay a smaller monthly fee until you feel comfortable returning to the facility.

In March, Retro Fitness offered to freeze memberships for as long as necessary, with no fees and no strings attached. Life Time says members are free to cancel or put their memberships on hold. For those wanting to go on hold, Life Time is waiving fees for 60 days. After that, its normal hold dues (generally $10 to $15 a month) would apply.

Stop automatic payments. If all else fails and your gym refuses to budge, call your credit card company, dispute the current charge and ask to block any future recurring charges. Again, you should also send a letter or email to your gym, putting it on notice of your cancellation, and keep a copy for your files.

Although the gym could come after you in court, unless we’re talking thousands of dollars, it’s unlikely it will go to the trouble, Katz said. “In the current climate, it’s foolish for a gym not to let people out of their contract, but it’s always best to take the practical approach before the legal approach.”

Be patient. Gym operators and gymgoers are navigating uncharted waters. If your gym is closed, there may be no one on the receiving end of your emails or calls. Be sure you have signed up for its notifications by email or text. That way, you’ll know when the facility anticipates reopening and can assess your options.

Nuells, the former gym rat from Los Angeles, said he is open to the pause option. “Even if they do clean regularly, I don’t feel safe among hundreds of people. I want to wait at least until the end of the year.” In the meantime, he continues his fitness regime through virtual yoga and Pilates classes and late evening walks.

Alfano understands Nuells’s unease. “I respect the fear factor. It’s not just a question of are you allowed to gather, but are you ready to gather?” he said. “Our philosophy is whenever you are ready to come back to the gym, we’re ready to welcome you.”