Sam, 32, went to his gym in Boulder, Colorado for the last time in late March, right before it was forced closed by the coronavirus pandemic. In a typical week, he’d go four to six times, describing his gym routine as “the most important thing in my life,” next to friends and family. So when Colorado announced gyms in the state could reopen at 25 percent capacity on June 4, Sam was eager to go back.
“It felt weird from the outset,” he told VICE. No one was wearing masks, and though his gym required people to schedule their workout in advance (something many gyms are doing in an attempt to control crowding), it was clear that no one was actually doing so. “I tried going a couple more times but everything seemed worse, like people just progressively cared less about the pandemic.”
Now Sam’s waiting for a vaccine before he resumes his routine. “Going to the gym right now, in the current state of the pandemic and our country’s response to it, just seems wildly irresponsible,” he said.
Everything about a way a gym functions, in its normal operating mode, is extremely hospitable to the spread of coronavirus. The virus is known to thrive indoors, particularly where multiple people are gathered, and particularly when those multiple people are breathing and spewing their aerosols all over the place. Gyms have been identified as causes of superspreading events. The CDC attributes 11 recent outbreak clusters in Japan to “closed environments,” including fitness centers.
Still, in reopened states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida, gyms are open as case number records are broken anew every day. And so far, as long as they’ve been open, people have been going.
Those who’ve returned to their gyms during the pandemic told VICE that, even with ample precautions in place, they know that there’s risk involved in what they’re doing. Two people, upon detailing their pandemic gym routines via email on Wednesday night, followed up the next morning to say they’ve since reconsidered and will no longer be going to the gym.
“I’ve been thinking about this more, and actually writing everything out makes me realize that as much as I like going to the gym and as great as it is for me, I need to and am going to stop going,” John, 37, said, eight hours after his initial email.
John religiously went to his gym in Oklahoma City every morning before work—can count the number of times he’s skipped on two hands—but stopped going when his office closed in mid-March. When it first reopened in early May, he went back to find it almost empty. But attendance ramped up steadily with time, and Oklahoma’s case numbers with it. John’s now looking to get equipment (hard to find, and often out of stock thanks to profiteering reselling groups online) to set up a home gym in his garage and ditch the gym altogether.
Katherine, 32, who asked that her name be changed due to intense feelings around coronavirus where she lives, went to her gym in Austin, Texas for about three weeks when it reopened in May, and stopped as cases started spiking in Texas in June. (Austin is now imminently moving into what the city calls “Code Red,” a strongly suggested shelter-in-place order.) She said implementation of safety procedures at gyms throughout the city vary widely, though her own gym enforced mask wearing and handwashing upon entry.
“There were many safety procedures in place that I appreciated and respected,” Katherine told VICE. Her gym, built out of a warehouse, also lacks air conditioning, observed to spread coronavirus around closed environments in early contact tracing studies. “Maybe I was deluding myself, but the risk felt low and manageable.”
Katherine’s waiting now for a serious decline in cases around Texas to return to her gym, even as it remains open during the state’s worst outbreak to date. “Our state government has been very laissez-faire and our city government has been hamstrung by Governor Abbott, so I’ve been trying to err on the side of caution and not just wait for mandatory closures or safety steps like masks,” she said. Abbott, like many other Republican governors, has strongly leaned on the doctrine of personal responsibility throughout the pandemic, favoring the economy over human lives.
New York, an early epicenter of the outbreak in the United States and one of the minority of states not currently experiencing a spike, has gyms in one of the final phases of its reopening plan. Gyms were previously set to be included in the state’s phase four, but, citing other superspreading events and the current state of the pandemic around the country, Governor Cuomo recently cut gyms from the schedule. It now remains unclear when gyms in the state will come back, prompting a coalition of more than 3,000 gym-owners to consider a lawsuit.
When gyms are allowed to reopen, they’ll likely be very different from before, as most previously cramped spaces will be. Until then, working out at home might comparatively suck, but there are ways to make it suck a lot less. Of course the biggest perk of all is it comes without risk of putting potentially many other lives at risk, just for half an hour on the squat rack.
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