What gyms should do and what they are doing to help keep clients safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 20 minutes into a group bootcamp-fitness class at the Upper East Side location of boutique workout studio Barry’s Friday morning, each one of us was ushered out of the room, like kids in a fire drill. Our instructor shooed everyone out while he and the cleaning staff grabbed disinfectant wipes and spray, they began wiping down the entire sweaty room — from benches, mirrors, weights, and treadmills, to the floor.
Six minutes later, we were let back in and allowed to continue with the workout.
The mid-session cleaning break, extra sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer in each studio, and shortening all classes by 10 minutes to give staff 20 minutes to spray down and clean the room, are just some of the changes Barry’s has implemented in light of the coronavirus pandemic. And according to public health experts, Barry’s intense cleaning is the type of measure all gyms and boutique fitness classes should be taking.
In light of the coronavirus, we’ve learned how to wash our hands for 20 seconds, memorized what percentage of alcohol is necessary in hand sanitizer to kill the virus (at least 60 percent), and analyzed every informational blast — social distancing, canceled events, transmission guidance — released by public health officials.
But while guidelines from health officials are helpful and awareness about the coronavirus is valuable, it’s difficult to figure out which aspects of daily life we should change and which ones we can keep in order to have some semblance of normalcy in our lives. With all the information out there, it feels as though we are simultaneously being told to brace for the worst and also to keep calm, carry on, and try to live our lives as normally as possible.
For the millions of consumers worldwide that have helped make gyms and boutique fitness into a $94 billion industry, according to statistics from the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association, it is part of our lives. Fitness is therapy, exercise, and a de-stressor, which is why in these times of uncertainty, it’s a go-to.
Granted, if worse comes to the worst, I fully understand that putting a hold on the gym is a no-brainer. And in the grand scheme of things, clearly, going to the gym isn’t as serious as the dire situations in parts of the world.
But to get a better understanding of where things currently stand in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak — barring any further escalation — I asked public health experts and officials specializing in transmission and cleanliness protocol for the best practices for going to the gym. And that includes whether we should be going at all.
Going to the gym means taking precautions like wiping down all your equipment
Sweat is a constant at gyms and fitness classes. Every piece of equipment you touch has been touched by someone else’s sweat, and that is, frankly, disgusting. And it’s even more so when you do the math of how long gyms have held onto their equipment, multiplied by the number of people in and out of a gym in any given hour, afternoon, day, or year.
So is coronavirus-laced sweat a possibility? Can the illness be transmitted through our buckets of sweat?
“As a respiratory virus, sweat isn’t generally a transmission route, though contaminated skin and hands can be,” Dr. Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, told me over email. “Think more about how you might touch your nose and then touch equipment, or cough on a hand and touch equipment, than about the sweat itself.”
The possibility of the virus living on weights or mats makes the gym a risk for transmission. The risk means that gym-goers, SoulCyclers, Barry’s bootcampers, should wipe down all the surfaces they’re touching with an approved disinfectant. They should take on that responsibility even if the gym or facility cleans the equipment themselves.
“I study MRSA (a bacterium that can survive on surfaces) so I always wipe off equipment both before and after using it because you never know if the person ahead of you did a good job, but now is a good time to be extra careful about thorough cleaning,” Smith told me.
Smith also recommends distancing yourself from fellow gym-goers. This may mean doing something as simple as not going during the gym’s busy hours (usually before and after work), but those hours might be different given the pandemic. It also means no high-fives or handshakes at the gym.
But maintaining the recommended six feet of social distance from others is all but impossible in sold-out group fitness classes where bikes and stations are planted next to each other. Smith says to consider that before booking.
The experts maintain, however, that fitness studios and gyms themselves aren’t any more or less hazardous than any other social setting we might place ourselves in. That is, barring the virus rapidly escalating and dependent on case/transmission rate in your area.
“[Gyms are not as risky as] anywhere else where you would be touching things and in somewhat close contact with people — but as the virus is spreading, all of those activities are becoming increasingly risky, especially if you are in a group that is likely to be more severely affected by Covid-19,” Smith said. “I think individuals may want to consider any aspect of how they go out in public during these times, both for themselves and the rest of their community, particularly vulnerable individuals.”
But the most important thing public health experts have stressed over and over applies to everyone and everywhere, including the gym: Stay home if you’re not feeling well.
“The biggest thing right now is to stay home if you’re sick,” Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist and biodefense researcher, told me. “If you’re well, try and practice social distancing and basic infection control measures. This means, don’t go to the gym if you’re sick. If you’re well and want to work out, try to avoid larger group classes, wipe down your equipment with disinfection wipes, before and after use, use hand hygiene frequently, and avoid touching your face.”
Gyms and group fitness studios like Barry’s and SoulCycle are adapting stricter cleaning routines. But some are shutting down for now.
Barry’s decision to physically install a break mid-class to disinfect the room seems to be the type of “stepping up” that Smith stresses. I also noticed the studio had new sanitizing wipe dispensers, and hand sanitizer in addition to hand soap in the restrooms. In addition, a spokesperson for the company told Vox that it would “continue to follow all CDC and Department of Public Health guidelines, and will follow best practices as they are released.”
SoulCycle, the expansive and ubiquitous spin class company, has also taken measures like removing the hand weight section from their classes, per a statement issued on March 12. Usually, SoulCycle classes involve an “arms” series, in which cyclers take a break from pedaling to perform bicep, tricep, and shoulder exercises. Those are now eliminated. The company also said it, too, was ramping up the availability of disinfecting wipes and hospital-grade cleaning solution. On Friday, SoulCycle sent an email to its riders saying that it would cut class sizes in half — a move that seems to be in line with the guidance of social distancing.
National gyms like Equinox and Crunch have also stepped up efforts, sending emails to clients about hygiene practices and promising to step up cleaning efforts with detailed information as to what they plan to do.
And there are also online classes, including Peloton and its vaunted bike. In Beijing, online fitness classes have become trendy as officials there have urged civilians to stay inside and curb their social gatherings during the coronavirus outbreak.
For some gyms and group fitness studios, though, the best practice was shutting down. Chelsea Piers, a fancy gym and fitness facility with outposts in New York City and Connecticut, has closed through March 31, 2020. Rowgatta, a New York City-based fitness class that combines weightlifting and rowing, has temporarily shut down.
“We must do our part to protect our staff and to keep our Athletes safe,” Rowgatta said in an email to its clients. “In a time when there is a lack of clear direction from authorities, we must do what we can to lead and contribute to the wellbeing of the community in which we live.”
Similarly, Barry’s has temporarily shut down international locations in Italy, Sweden, and Norway, and has promised to waive cancellation fees for clients.
In light of these closings, improvements, and cleaning measures being taken, I asked Smith and Popescu what are the most important things gyms should be doing to protect their clients.
“I think they should be stepping up the cleaning they’re doing of all equipment in order to minimize the risk of transmission from weights, machines, mats, and also doorknobs and other surfaces,” Smith said. “We all know that some gym patrons are just terrible at doing this, so gyms should be extra vigilant to do so. Remind clients to spread out as much as possible in fitness classes, and emphasize hand-washing.”
Popescu offered similar advice.
“Gyms should be really reinforcing that people should not be there if they’re sick — both employees and clients — and providing ample opportunity for hand hygiene (reminders are great), and disinfecting wipes for equipment,” Popescu said, explaining that sanitizing wipes and disinfecting really help.
“I also encourage people to really be mindful of not touching their face and take some breaks for hand hygiene,” Popescu added. “If you’re in a fitness class, try to do one with a smaller group of people in a more open space, so you can all have about three to six feet between you. This is a great time to use the fitness apps and home gyms!”
Author: Alex Abad-Santos