By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Gyms are known for being social places where people share equipment, are often in close quarters with strangers and sweat together.
All of that is changing as gyms start to reopen in parts of the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In Oklahoma — where gyms were allowed to reopen on May 1 with social distancing and sanitation protocols in place — some gym members are wearing gloves and masks as they exercise, according to Julie Hibbard, who owns an Anytime Fitness franchise in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
“I added restrictions like a strong suggestion to wear masks, mandatory wiping down of equipment and we only have 25% capacity [of members inside the gym],” said Hibbard, adding that she watches the gym’s security cameras to make sure protocols are followed. “I also added social distancing, so [members and staff] have to keep 15 feet away from people inside the gym.”
Hibbard, who owns three gyms in Texas, said she also has a professional cleaning staff that cleans the gym every day and a staff member who cleans the gym hourly, a sign of the additional precautions most gyms will be expected to take.
In Texas, where gyms will be allowed to open on May 18, Kaitlyn Gannon, the owner of Dallas Iron Fitness, is busy making adjustments to her two private, boutique gym locations so that they can reopen.
“All of our members, upon entering, will have to wash their hands. We’ll have spray bottles around the gym and members are required to spray down equipment after the first touch,” she told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Every member has to wash their hands when they’re done and we have antibacterial hand sanitizer at the front and they have to put that on as they leave.”
The gym’s personal trainers will rely on verbal cues in order to maintain a safe distance from clients and will wear masks as needed and members will have to book appointments to work out, according to Gannon. The gym will start a modified class schedule one week after it opens, with only two to five people per class instead of the usual 15.
“The environment is just going to be totally different and the support we need is immeasurable,” said Gannon, whose second gym location opened the day before stay-at-home orders were put in place in Texas. “Know that gym owners and staff are doing everything possible to open up in a clean environment.”
Nationally, gyms and boutique studios — even ones that have not yet announced plans to reopen — are already giving their members a glimpse of what the future will look like.
Equinox, a national gym chain, has told members they will need to book visits via the gym’s app and will have their temperatures checked upon entry using touchless thermometers. Members will also be required to wear masks except while “vigorously training” and have to follow guidelines to accommodate for social distancing.
Extra luxuries like saunas, pools, showers, kids’ clubs and basketball courts will also be closed during the initial reopening of gyms, according to Equinox.
Soul Cycle, a national chain of cycling studios owned by Equinox, is planning to limit the number of riders in each class to allow for social distancing and is encouraging riders to wait outside or in their cars before class. They will also check the temperatures of their staff members and also riders if required by state or local governments, according to the chain’s website.
And Gold’s Gym, which already has opened around five company-owned gyms and over 20 franchise gyms across the U.S., has spaced out its cardio and strength equipment to meet social distancing standards. Company-owned gyms are requiring staff to wear face masks and gloves and recommending that members wear masks as well, in addition to instituting additional cleaning protocols such as a cleaning intermission between 1 and 2 p.m. local time.
The gyms that have already reopened are reporting a record number of people signing up for new memberships, according to Gold’s Gym President and CEO Adam Zeitsiff.
“They’d never been a member before. They just wanted to be active, wanted to be healthy,” Zeitsiff told ABC News of the new members. “They probably were sick of being at home and decided this was time for me to make that emotional decision.”
How to know if it’s safe to return to the gym
The reopening of gyms across the U.S. is happening at the same time that the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to rise in this country, reaching more than 1.3 million diagnosed cases and at least 82,548 deaths.
People who live in areas where COVID-19 still has a major presence and are viewed as vulnerable — those age 65 and older and people with pre-existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes — should exercise caution still when it comes to returning to a gym or boutique fitness studio, according to Dr. Simone Wildes, a Boston-based infectious disease specialist.
“If you live in an area with large numbers of COVID-19 cases, it places you at higher risk for contracting the disease, so it might not be wise to return to the gym at this time,” she told GMA. “And the vulnerable population might have to wait until vaccines and effective treatments are available. They should sign up for virtual classes or continue to exercise outdoors.”
“However, if you live in an area of low incidence of the virus, and your gym has taken all the necessary steps, then I would return. However, if not reassured by the measures at the gym, I would continue my workout at home and outdoors,” Wildes added.
The risk of transmission of COVID-19 at the gym comes not from sweat — there is no evidence that virus is spread through sweat — but through frequently touched surfaces, like weights, strength machines and treadmills, that you may touch and then touch your face, eyes, nose and mouth, increasing the risk of contracting the virus, according to Wildes.
It is also more difficult to maintain the recommended six feet of physical distance from another person inside a gym than it would be outdoors or inside your own home. The main way the virus is spread is through respiratory droplets via coughing and sneezing, but also when breathing hard and forcefully exhaling, as commonly occurs during exercise, experts say.
If you are ready to head back to the gym, here are Wildes’ five recommendations to stay as safe as possible.
1. Practice safe social distancing: Maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people in the gym, recommends Wildes.
2. Clean equipment before and after use: “Definitely clean the equipment before and after use and use and use hand sanitizer between equipment use.”
3. Wear gloves: “I would wear workout gloves as well for extra layer of protection from touching high touch surface areas.”
4. Wear a cloth face covering: “The CDC has recommended that a cloth face covering be worn in public settings where other social distancing measures will be difficult to be enforced especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Wear cloth face coverings that you can breathe through comfortably and your nose and mouth are fully covered. The mask should fit snugly against the sides of your face so there are no gaps.”
“The face covering should be either tied or secured to prevent slipping while working out. Wash mask after use. Try not to touch your eyes, mouth or nose when removing mask from face and wash or sanitize your hands immediately after removal.”
5. Make sure your gym is taking all necessary precautions: Wildes recommends reading your gym’s COVID-19 guidelines to make sure the below questions are answered, and asking the gym directly if they are not.
- How will the club limit the individuals in the facility while maintaining social distancing requirements and how will this be managed?
- Will there be signs and floor markers in place to help members?
- Will there be temperature checks or just symptom checks to enter the building?
- What are your cleaning protocols? Will equipment be cleaned before and after use with EPA-approved disinfectants. Any additional cleaning with UV lighting?
- How will staff be protected — i.e. the cleaning staff, personal trainers and front desk staff — from coronavirus and will they be given personal protective equipment?
- Do you have a return to work policy in place for employees that are COVID-19 positive?
- Will there be continual training and updates of staff on COVID-19?
- Will there be group exercise or small groups happening?
- How will social distancing on free weights and cardio machines be enforced?
- Will all the members be required to wear a face mask during workouts and do you have masks on hand for those without masks?
- Are childcare services available and what protocols are in place for adequate sanitation?
- Will there be fans and will doors and windows be opened to keep air moving?
- What is the communication protocol for informing members of the gym if others members are diagnosed with COVID-19?
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