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On re-opening gyms

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I emailed my Governor, Gavin Newsom, the other day to ask a simple question:

Dear Governor, is there any preliminary thinking as to when and how gyms will be able to reopen?
Gyms are after all an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

Thank you, Steve

He quickly and tersely replied:

Figuring out …

It’s not easy for Gov. Newsom, or any other Governor, to determine when and how to re-open anything. And I would think that gyms are not at the top of their priority list. Probably restaurants are more important, economically; certainly in terms of employees. But I’d like to get in an argument that gyms should be among the very first wave of re-openings.

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population of 328 million goes to a gym at least once a week, according to the gym management company Glofox, and the number of Americans working out at gyms continued to climb every year, until the coronavirus shuttered most gyms. Gyms are (as I wrote the Governor) an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. People work out for many reasons (I don’t know that I fully believe Glofox’s claim that 50% of all gym members “go just to check out the opposite sex”), but surely most of us go to keep our weight down, increase muscle mass, protect our cardiac health, improve our physical appearance, and remain lithe and limber even as we age. To take away from us the opportunity to work out at the gym is truly to throw a road bump into the process of being healthy.

Coronavirus, obviously, is more than a mere roadblock to health. It can be a sinkhole of death, and I don’t disparage for a minute state and local governments closing gyms until the curve is flattened. But I think we’re now seeing that flattening, certainly here in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle has been doing a great job keeping track of coronavirus statistics in the Bay Area and, as this graph shows, the “new cases curve” is essentially declining across the nine-county region, with most counties showing a weekly drop in new cases except for Marin and Napa, where the numbers are very low.

No one is advocating a pell-mell rush to go back to crowded, sweaty gyms. But steps can be taken to ensure that the risks are managed. News organizations tracking gyms report that they have already identified steps they plan to take when they re-open, including:

  • Vinyl arrows on the floor to direct the flow of traffic
  • Grids on studio floors (yoga, for example) to ensure six-foot social distancing
  • Placing equipment (e.g. treadmills) and workout stations six feet apart
  • Upgrading cleaning and sanitizing of all equipment and public surfaces

Even before coronavirus, the gym industry was actively researching ways to keep gyms and fitness centers clean and safe. These best practices included increasing staff to clean and disinfect lockerrooms and restrooms, increasing the supply of hand sanitizer and paper towels (which frequently run out if not properly attended), and even the use of “no-touch cleaning systems” instead of mops and sponges, which can be infected with germs.

Here in Oakland, the public has been very responsive to our shelter-in-place rules, which were the first in the nation. Every store that remains open has six-foot spacing markers on the floors, and people respect that distance. People are wearing masks: not everyone, but mostly. I think wearing masks in gyms during heavy aerobic activity would be impossible—I can’t imagine a strenuous stairmaster or elliptical routine with a mask on. But if the work stations are placed far enough apart, it should be okay to exercise without masks. Signs could be provided reminding people to wipe down their equipment after use. Mostly they already do; in this pandemic, I should think the 80% that already clean up after themselves could be raised to 100%. Can you imagine if somebody sweated all over a recumbent bike and then didn’t wipe it down afterwards? Lots of dirty looks and social sanctioning. Gyms also could post signs informing patrons that people who refuse to practice elemental rules of safety will be asked to leave, and possibly have their memberships revoked.

Late yesterday, I got a mass email from my gym, 24 Hour Fitness, with good news: they’re “preparing” for re-opening, and taking these steps: “reimagining the club experience from touch-free club check-in…as well as social distancing throughout the club with space between equipment and between individuals in group fitness classes.” I love the touch-free check-in: I always disinfected my fingers as soon as I had to press on that nasty pad.

So re-opening gyms can and should be done. If there’s any demographic of people in America who are more concerned with and knowledgeable about health issues than gym-goers, I don’t know who. I will trust my fellow gym rats to be respectful of the rules when we return, and I promise I will be.

By the way, as I write this (Wednesday morning), Gov. Newsom, who is providing such intelligent leadership in California, is going to unveil his re-opening plan later today. I hope that gyms are part of it and I think they will be.

  1. david sieser says:

    Hi Steve,
    Respectfully, I’d like to offer a different perspective. l, personally would not venture into any gyms if and when they were to open. I am an avid tennis player, and a member of an indoor club. Tennis is naturally a very distanced activity and our club has been closed for quite some time now. I stopped playing 2 weeks before they closed because I just didn’t feel safe (even doubles). Indoor tennis facilities are much larger open spaces than gyms in general and so would be inherently safer. Going to a gym would be far riskier until we know more than we do about how Cov-2 is spread. When people exercise in gyms, they expend more way energy than they normally do. In doing so, they exhale with more force, potentially shedding volumes more droplets containing virus loads. Scientists are speculating that the virus can be spread merely by normal speech. Exhaling when bench pressing 300 pound weights would only exacerbate this effect. They also don’t yet understand how ventilation systems distribute these droplet particles as well. Therefore, you’d need to vet the HVAC systems of your favorite gym, in order to do due diligence.
    Flattening the curve only allows the healthcare system to catch up to the overwhelming surge of hospitalizations. When that flat curve descends, I still wouldn’t do anything that would increase my risk of getting this nasty bug. I’ve read too many horrendous accounts of those who have survived it.
    You could lable me overly cautious in all this, and that would be okay.
    Having said all this, good luck lobbying your great Governor Newsom

  2. Thanks David. Your points are well-taken. I would respond that any re-opening, anywhere, contains more risk than remaining closed. However, we all know we can’t remain closed much longer, so it’s a question of risk management. I’m sure that among the first places to re-open will be restaurants and bars and, possibly, theaters. So I think gyms should be included. As my post outlined, there are common sense steps gyms can take to protect clients, and there no doubt are additional steps that I’m not yet aware of. So I say, open them up and let’s see what happens!

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