Gyms Reopening May Not Facilitate Coronavirus Infections, Study Finds

Several European countries that allowed fitness facilities to reopen haven’t reported any associated uptick in Covid-19 cases. Gyms Reopening May Not Facilitate Coronavirus Infections, Study Finds

European countries that have allowed gyms to reopen have reported no uptick in coronavirus infections, suggesting fitness studios might be relatively safe.

A study sponsored by the Norwegian government and published this week provided the latest indication that with certain hygiene rules, people who exercise at the gym might not be at a higher risk of infection than those who don’t.

Fitness facilities in the Nordic country reopened June 15. Germany and Austria have gradually reopened gyms since May, after policy makers there decided that the benefits of exercising outweighed concerns about contracting Covid-19.

So far, no major outbreak has been linked to gyms, pools and other indoor sport venues, which are all subject to heightened hygiene and distancing guidelines.

The Norwegian study showed that gyms were safe if rules were enforced. The study conducted by researchers from the University of Oslo and other research institutions hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

The study, conducted over two weeks in May, randomly selected 3,764 individuals aged 18 to 64 from the capital Oslo, of which 1,896 were asked to train in gyms while 1,868 didn’t and served as a control group.

In the gym-going group, 81.8% visited at least once and 38.5% went six times or more. Out of 3,016 participants who were then tested for Covid-19, only one was positive. It was determined that this person had become infected at work.

The subjects were required to follow hygiene rules and stay two meters from others during high-intensity training. They weren’t allowed to use the showers at the gyms. No masks were required.

“The results of the study are applicable to other areas of the world such as the U.S. or the U.K,” said Prof. Michael Bretthauer, one of the authors of the study.

Mr. Bretthauer said he had expected more people to test positive. The overall rate of coronavirus infections in Oslo was 3.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in the first week of the study and 11.7 in the second week.

“You should be very strict with the measures like distance and hygiene; in Norway, people complied with the measures rigorously,” Mr. Bretthauer said.

A spokeswoman for the Norwegian government said that the decision to open the gyms was guided by studies and empirical evidence, as well as by the premise that a lack of exercise could be detrimental to public health.

In most of Germany, gym members must keep a minimum distance of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) from each other and facilities are frequently disinfected. High-intensity training, such as indoors cycling, is prohibited in some German states due to the higher release of tiny particles through heavy breathing that could linger and infect others in closed rooms for hours.

Exercising indoors is riskier than outdoors, but if distancing and hygiene rules are observed, gyms are safe to use, said Professor Andreas Dotzauer, a virologist with the University of Bremen in Germany.

In Austria, where similar rules are in place, authorities haven’t registered any spread of the virus in fitness centers, according to a government spokesman.

Updated: 7-6-2020

Gym Owners Sweat Out Reopening Strategies

Gyms Reopening May Not Facilitate Coronavirus Infections, Study Finds

Connecticut studios lament low customer turnout; gym owners in New York and New Jersey anxiously await the chance to fully reopen.

Gyms and fitness centers in Connecticut are seeing a slow warm-up after reopening their doors, with many customers still worried about the risk of coronavirus infection, while New York and New Jersey gym owners are anxious to get back on track soon.

Connecticut allowed fitness centers to reopen June 17 at 50% capacity, with gym goers required to keep 6 feet apart if masks are worn or 12 feet apart without them. For non-“vigorous” exercise, participants can be 6 feet apart with no masks. In New York officials haven’t allowed gyms to reopen, while New Jersey fitness instructors can offer outdoor classes and private indoor sessions by appointment.

Most Connecticut gym owners said attendance since reopening has been low, even for the typically slow summer season. Boutique fitness instructors said social-distancing rules were preventing them from bringing in enough business to pay the bills.

Bob McDowell, chief executive of the Riverbrook Regional YMCA, said daily visits to the facility in Wilton were down about 65% during the first eight days of reopening compared with the same week last year. The YMCA is requiring members to reserve time slots in advance for everything from its fitness center to the lap lanes in its pools, and Mr. McDowell said outdoor activities like swimming and paddle tennis are proving to be the most popular.

“I think people are just very, very cautious,” Mr. McDowell said, adding that he projects by the end of the year the Wilton YMCA will have lost $2 million in revenue, equal to about one-third of its operating budget.

Boutique fitness studios with business models that depend on group classes are now struggling with social-distancing regulations. Yoga studios, where mats were often spaced inches apart in popular classes pre-pandemic, are having trouble making the math work.

Bernadette Hutchings Birney, owner of Stamford Yoga Center, determined her 1,000-square-foot studio could accommodate four people per class, including the instructor. Before the pandemic, attendance for the most popular classes often reached 24 people.

Ms. Hutchings Birney is working with her landlord to find a larger, temporary space where she might be able to hold bigger indoor classes. Meanwhile, she’s offering online instruction as well as free classes in a downtown park. Still, revenue is down about 70% since March.

“We have a loyal community, but every boutique fitness business is hugely reliant on having new people,” she said. “We’re not having new people walking through the door.”

Jen Irwin, owner of Dew Yoga in Stamford, said she could only fit three or four students in her small studio under social-distancing restrictions. She can no longer afford her rent and is permanently closing her studio, but will continue to hold online and outdoor classes.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Ms. Irwin said. “The expense of the bricks-and-mortar are just not viable with reduced class sizes and safety restrictions.”

Ms. Irwin said she would eventually look for a new location and expects to have more affordable real estate options in coming months.

Fitness studios that operated with low student-to-instructor ratios before the pandemic are having an easier time complying with social-distancing rules. Claudia King, owner of Darien Pilates, teaches mostly private and semiprivate sessions and said about 40% of her clients have returned since she reopened June 24.

Scott Ackerman said classes at his three Club Pilates locations in Fairfield County are almost at capacity, although he’s had to reduce class sizes and modify the daily schedule to allow enough time to clean and sanitize the studio in between classes.

“It’s kind of a scary time to go to a big-box gym right now,” Mr. Ackerman said. “You’re going to have people gravitate to studios like ours.”

Many gym chains across the U.S. are struggling, with 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc. and Gold’s Gym International Inc. filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the pandemic.

Jack Banks, co-owner of two large gyms in northern Connecticut, said attendance has been lower since they reopened, but he believes it is because people are working out at home. Mr. Banks said foot traffic at his Malibu Fitness in Farmington and Powerhouse Gym in Berlin is about 30% lower than before the shutdown.

“Some customers say, ‘I’m fairly happy in the basement,’” Mr. Banks said. “But it’s a very rare person who can work out for years in their own home. Most treadmills eventually become coat racks.”

David Lehman, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said he doesn’t know of any coronavirus infections or outbreaks that have been linked to gyms or fitness studios. Public health officials will assess whether social-distancing and capacity rules can be relaxed once the state enters its next phase of reopening, the timing of which he said will likely be announced this week.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently delayed gym reopenings indefinitely, along with shopping malls and movie theaters, because he said the state Department of Health needs to further study indoor viral transmission.

Tammeca Rochester, owner of the boutique cycling studio Harlem Cycle, said she was disheartened by the delay. Her revenue is down at least 75% since mid-March, and keeping customers engaged through online classes has been challenging. She said she needed an idea of when she would be allowed to reopen so she can inform her clients and negotiate with her landlord.

“What will be the triggering factor that lets us open?” Ms. Rochester said. “It’s very hard to be optimistic when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mr. Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Gyms and fitness centers in New Jersey are mostly closed, although owners can offer outdoor classes and indoor instruction to individuals and their families, caretakers and romantic partners. In Montclair, Architect Studios co-owners Sarah Reppert and Adrienne Felder said they would start offering outdoor classes in addition to their online instruction, but don’t plan to open their doors until at least Labor Day regardless of whether the state loosens restrictions earlier.

“We don’t think people will really be running to come back to class and sweat and breathe on each other,” said Ms. Felder, whose studio focuses on high-intensity interval training. “We’re going to wait until it really feels safe.”

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