Few industries have been hit harder by the coronavirus crisis than gyms. They’ve been closed throughout the Garden State since the early onset of the pandemic.
The subject took centerstage and made national headlines when a Bellmawr gym refused to close, leading to the owner’s license being rescinded. And with fitness centers opening across the river in New York in the next few weeks, many are clamoring for New Jersey to follow suit.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been noncommittal, last week said he was ”trying to find a way” to get gyms open.
“We respect their industry and the pain they’re going through,” Murphy reiterated at his Wednesday press briefing. “We wanna get there.”
But according to the experts, we aren’t there yet.
NJ Advance Media talked to several medical experts on the issue of gym openings, and all of them were skeptical that it could be done without serious risk of spreading coronavirus. Here’s why.
Coronavirus can be spread more easily while working out.
The act of exercising itself is dangerous during a pandemic. Aline M. Holmes, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing, says studies show coronavirus can be spread more when working out than when at rest.
“There is evidence, early work out of Korea, that showed that when people are exercising, like dancing or just moving around a lot, that they breathe deeper and heavier,” Holmes said. “They obviously are expelling more air because they’re breathing more and that is all an opportunity for them to spread the virus further than at the six feet.”
So even if you’re keeping your distance while working out, you still may not be distanced enough.
“Where people are working out, you’re breathing heavy. When you breathe heavy, you exhale more respiratory particles and they go further,” Dr. Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University and an expert in epidemiology, said. “Given what we know about aerosolized spread of this disease, it really makes gyms a higher risk activity, unfortunately.”
Indoor ventilation, especially at gyms, is likely not up to par.
According to Dr. Corey Basch, a professor of public health and the department chair at William Paterson University, all that heavy breathing makes ventilation systems essential, and that’s a problem.
“There are so many factors to consider. We’re talking about exercise specifically, it’s different than a retail store where they limit a few shoppers and they’re in and out,” Basch said. “These are people staying as they’re working out. And it’s not the sweat that’s the problem. It’s the increased breathing and concern about the airflow in an enclosed space. And then you look to the ventilation systems that a lot of the buildings have, and they’re just not up to par for filtering and the type of work that we’d want them to be doing. People didn’t necessarily start the gyms with these types of things in mind, we were never dealing with this at that point.”
Sharing gym equipment promotes the spread of coronavirus.
Coronavirus can’t be spread through sweat, but that doesn’t mean machines don’t need to be sterilized. Gym-goers could cough on their hands and then touch the machines, promoting spread on machines that are used by countless different people on any given day.
“The whole premise of the gym is you’re sharing equipment,” Basch said. “You go there because they have all the equipment you need and all the different machinery. It‘s all predicated on sharing and working out at the same time as other people. It’s just very complicated.”
One sanitation slip-up could become a nightmare
How often do you wipe down machines that you use at the gym? Even if you do a good job, chances are there are people that don’t. And at a time where those machines could become breeding grounds for a highly contagious virus, that’s incredibly dangerous.
“Even on a good day, on a non-coronavirus day, we were asking people to please wipe down the machinery, to disinfect,” Basch said. “The focus is really on the activity of working out so people don’t necessarily sanitize every single thing they touch.”
Face coverings are key. But who will enforce it?
Wearing masks has become one of the most polarizing topics of the coronavirus pandemic, with many people resistant to do so even with health experts saying it helps quell the spread of the disease. Wearing masks would be essential to any return to indoor gyms, and Silvera questions if people will comply.
“If people are wearing their face coverings over their nose and under their chin the whole time, that can reduce the risk quite a bit,” Silvera said. “But the probability of people doing that while on a treadmill? It can be done, I’ve seen people work out long with a mask, though it certainly makes it harder. But I don’t see people doing that.”
Murphy mandated in July that masks be worn “in public when social distancing isn’t possible,” but the policy is hard to enforce. How will mask rules be enforced in gyms?
“We can say masks are mandatory, but they’re only really mandatory if there’s a consequence for not wearing the mask,” Silvera said. “Then the question is, who enforces that? And what does that mean? And is it going to be enforced across the board? Are we going to ask the gym employees to be the people who are calling the police to fine people?”
Even if masks are worn, Silvera says as they sweat their masks become less effective. So even masks don’t make gyms completely safe.
Gyms might not be safe until we have a vaccine.
There’s no timetable for Murphy to reopen gyms in New Jersey. None of the experts we spoke to suggested a safe timeline, either. Though they all agreed a vaccine would go a long way to making gyms acceptable again.
“I think we’re all going to be stuck in this until we get a vaccine that’s pretty reliable,” Holmes said. “Which I don’t anticipate being until early next year.”
Working out outdoors is much safer.
When asked what a safe gym during COVID-19 would look like, Basch had a simple answer: “It would be outdoors.”
All the experts we talked to agreed that the safest way to work out during the coronavirus pandemic would be to do it outside — whether that’s taking workout classes outside, going to a gym that has moved its equipment outdoors, or simply doing workouts on your own in your backyard. It’s safer than any indoor gym.
“A lot of gyms are moving group classes, like dancing and fitness, outside, they’re moving some some of their equipment like barbells,” Holmes said. “If they can readily move outside and in their yard or in the parking lot, I think that’s much better than being in a contained room.”
But if you do go when they’re open, be safe.
If and when gyms open again, the onus will be on gym-goers to be as safe as possible when working out.
“Stay six or more feet away from people, bring your own disinfecting solution, which would be at least 60% alcohol, and wipe down, even though even though the gym may have been wiped clean before you got there, I would clean the machines off and anything you touch,” Holmes said. “I mean, I still don’t want to do it. But if I had to do it, that’s how I do it.”
— to www.nj.com