The gym will be one of the toughest spaces to reopen, experts say

With the tentative reopening of some retail spaces, parks, golf courses and even farmers markets in provinces across Canada, many may be hoping to return to other parts of their routine prior to lockdown.

But when it comes to the opening of gym and fitness facilities, that may be further off, as most provinces do not yet have a set date to reopen those businesses.

Gyms will be some of the toughest facilities to reopen while COVID-19 is still a threat, said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

“If we’re going to make a list of high-risk activities, the gym would be on the upper end of that spectrum. We’ve got lots of people in an enclosed indoor space with high-contact surfaces, and they’re also exercising as well, perhaps expelling more breath into the air,” he said.

For provinces to get to that stage of reopening, they will have to see consistently low case numbers and strict protocols in place to keep gym-goers safe, he said.

“It’s just not a safe environment when we’re dealing with a respiratory infection that can be easily transmitted from person to person. The threshold to open gyms again is going to be high, and we’re going to need to see a lot of safeguards in place,” he added.

What will need to be in place for gyms to reopen

Provinces that are ready to even entertain fitness facilities opening again are reporting low numbers of new cases of COVID-19 per day and are reporting a very low community burden of infection, said Bogoch.

In B.C., gyms under three health authorities are allowing clients back this week with restrictions in place, including needing to have an approved plan that covers everything from physical distancing to strict cleaning protocols.

Those gyms will also be limiting how many people are allowed inside based on the size of the fitness centre, and everyone who visits will need to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Water fountains will also be disabled and cardio machines will be kept two metres apart, if possible.

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“They’d be opened in a very careful manner, and there’s likely going to be rules regarding physical distancing within a gym and very careful wiping down of equipment between people using them,” said Bogoch.

Ontario and Quebec will need to see further drops in daily case counts for a gym to be considered safe, even with precautions in place, he explained.

Gyms are also particularly difficult to open back up as it may be challenging to have visitors wear masks since that could impede exercising, said Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal.

Kaufman recommends gyms limit the number of people to a room, screen gym-goers upon entry, wipe down equipment frequently, space out the equipment and ventilate the area as much as possible.

“Personally, I would hesitate to go to a gym now if I could find alternative outdoor exercises,” he said. “Events like spin classes, Zumba classes, yoga classes … should as much as possible be moved outdoors with adequate spacing between clients.”

Large gym chains like GoodLife Fitness, with hundreds of locations across Canada, are planning for reopenings that will eventually come on a province-by-province basis, Jane Riddell, president and COO of GoodLife Fitness, said in a statement to Global News.

While final plans for reopening are currently being completed for the end of May, GoodLife will increase physical distancing in its gyms and decrease capacity in the gyms to meet public health recommendations and keep clients safe, she said.

There will be an enhanced focus on extensive cleaning and safety training for associates, she said.

The question of smaller, boutique gyms

Boutique and specialty gyms across Canada are also eager to reopen and meet safety requirements.

Urban Athlete Fitness Studio in Calgary has been closed for more than two months and has moved classes online.

The studio is looking at having clients book times to come visit and moving classes outdoors since Alberta allows gatherings of up to 50 people outside, said Kohl Kehler, co-owner of the gym.

But Kehler says it’s frustrating that smaller, independent gyms are being grouped in with the big chains, as his gym already has a set number of members and a smaller space. It wouldn’t be hard to follow public health protocols and reopen, he said.

“We’re not a big box gym, we’re not a 24-hour free-for-all, there’s staff there all the time already. This makes it easier to maintain. We have a lower customer-to-staff ratio already. Keeping it that way makes it easier to make sure all the rules are being followed,” he said.

In Alberta, gyms are part of a Stage 3 relaunch that may not come until the late summer or fall. In response, Kehler is one of many Alberta gym owners who have signed a petition to allow smaller gyms to open in Stage 2.

In Toronto, independent gym founder Kelly Taphouse says she’s also eager to reopen and is planning to implement safety protocols. Taphouse owns MOVE Fitness, a club specifically for women.

She and her team have moved classes to Zoom for their membership base.

She also informally surveyed her members about whether they’d be ready to return to the gym. Half said they were eager to come back, and the other half reported they’d need to feel it was a safe environment first, she said.

“Our class sizes are already small; they’re capped at 16 people. What I sort of envision … we will reduce our class sizes to eight and we’re going to look at setting up individual workstations with a spray bottle,” she said. She’s also looking at bringing on more people to help with extra cleaning.

Taphouse also agrees that smaller gyms should be allowed to open earlier than larger facilities in Ontario, as she says they’d have the ability to do so safely.

“It’s just not fair. These small studios that do so much … we’re needed ASAP,” she said. “It’s important for the government to understand this and how hard we are willing to work to make people feel safe.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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