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Gyms in some states are starting to reopen. Is it actually safe to go?

We talked to experts about the risks, and how gyms will have to change to keep people safe.

An empty gym in Hamburg, Germany,
Jonas Walzberg/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, fantasies about life after it are in full force. Some dream of the first restaurant they’ll go to again once restaurants reopen. Others think about the bars or parties they’ll go to with friends. Those who haven’t had the chance to go to the beach yet dream of summer outside. And many of us around the country, your humble correspondent included, can’t wait to get back into a gym.

Gyms and boutique fitness classes, from yoga to cycling to more intensive workouts like Barry’s Bootcamp, are forms of exercise, sure. They also function as a form of therapy, a mental health benefit, a hobby, and stress-relief outlets for the people that love them. Gyms and studios have been shut down due to the particular health risks they pose — what with potentially contaminated surfaces, lack of social distancing, heavy breathing, and on and on.

On May 1, states like Georgia and Oklahoma will make the first steps toward bringing gyms back into the fold, despite criticism of reopening plans from some health experts. And experts warn that it actually might be more dangerous to work out at gyms now than before. There’s good reason to continue to avoid them, even if they are open.

The coronavirus risk of going to the gym

Back in the early stages of the pandemic, health experts I spoke to explained that social distancing and cleanliness are particularly difficult to maintain at fitness locations, making particularly risky places to visit during the Covid-19 outbreak. Those same experts I spoke to tell me now those risk factors still apply, and gyms may even be more dangerous to patronize now for anyone vulnerable to the illness.

One problem with gyms is that the equipment is shared between all members. Every piece of equipment you touch has likely been touched by someone else. That “someone else” could potentially not know they have Covid-19 and coughed on their hand, or they touched a different piece of contaminated equipment and didn’t properly sanitize it before or after. Gyms know this and employ people to clean equipment, but that doesn’t mean every yoga mat or dumbbell or pull-up bar gets thoroughly cleaned.

The other factor is the lack of social distancing.

Prior to their closings across the country, fitness classes were in initial phases of instituting increased cleaning and social distancing measures. Barry’s Bootcamp, for example, was booking classes at half-capacity before deciding that shutting down its live, in-person classes was safer for the public. Many franchise gyms, on the other hand, had not limited their capacity numbers, only promising that they’d upped their cleaning regimens.

Choosing not to dramatically decrease the number of people using a gym at a time makes it difficult to keep the recommended 6 feet of distance away from each other. But many studios don’t have the luxury of free space or of minimizing how many members they can serve at a time.

“Gyms can be difficult places to maintain social distancing and the volume of high-touch surfaces and objects makes them uniquely challenging for infection prevention efforts,” Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist and biodefense researcher, told me. “Moreover, in those environments where social distancing is difficult, the CDC has recommended masks, which you can’t really do when working out.”

And since the start of the pandemic’s outbreak across the United States, there’s a new factor that Americans now have to deal with: the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus has gone up all over the country.

“Especially in Georgia, cases are increasing, so you have even more potentially infected people now than you did a month ago,” Dr. Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio, told me over email. “This makes going to a gym even more risky.”

Hong Kong has been celebrated for halting its outbreak. It still won’t open gyms.

As the coronavirus pandemic has played out, certain cities and countries have been lauded as models in tackling the disease and reducing infection rates. One of those places is Hong Kong, which used a combination of social distancing, travel restrictions, and contact tracing measures to stamp out the virus. Around mid-March, reports said that the country had contained the virus, and since then, Hong Kong has seemingly squashed a second wave of the virus.

On April 20, Hong Kong reported zero new cases of coronavirus — a huge milestone. And in the face of that achievement, the government announced that its social distancing measures, including shutting down gyms, would be extended for at least another two weeks. In South Korea, another shining example of how to best handle the outbreak, gyms had been shut down too, and restrictions are only loosening this week.

In contrast, the United States has surpassed 1 million confirmed cases and over 55,000 deaths. Georgia alone, according to its health department, currently has over 24,000 confirmed cases.

“One of my biggest concerns is gyms opening in states like Georgia, where there is continued community transmission but the governor has pushed to reopen,” Popescu said. “My hope is that gym owners are exceedingly cautious to reopen and set in place stringent infection control measures to ensure the safety of their patrons.”

Gyms in Georgia will take some precautions upon their reopening, like restricting capacity in the gym itself and group fitness classes, according to USA Today. But there are some less consistent measures. Some independent gyms have said they’ll ask their patrons to wear masks while others won’t, and some facilities will undertake phasing-in measures like moving equipment to comply with social distancing, while others are just limiting the number of people who can be using the equipment at a time.

Both experts I spoke to encouraged alternatives like working out from home (perhaps through online training or fitness classes), or working out outside, where the chances of making direct contact with contaminated material are relatively lower. This could change if gyms and fitness classes implement and adhere to disinfecting and social distancing measures, and if the disease outbreak subsides. But given the unpredictability of the current situation, gym-goers are advised to hold off on returning for a while longer.

“In areas with continued/increasing community transmission but opening gyms, I would discourage going to the gym and focus on what you can do at home or outside,” Popescu said.

Smith agreed.

“As much as I’d love to get in a workout, I’m not chancing it immediately when our gyms open back up here, and I’d urge caution to others.”

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