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Every single member of one fitness class got infected.

By Colleen Murphy
February 25, 2021
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Health officials have made it clear: Wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared a ton of guidance on when and how to wear a mask. And now, the CDC released examples of what can happen when that guidance isn't followed.

In two reports published on February 24, the CDC announced that a couple of COVID-19 outbreaks can be linked to fitness classes at gyms in Chicago and Honolulu. The common theme in both cases: masks were not widely used.

Between August 24 and September 1, 2020, the Chicago exercise facility offered four to eight high-intensity indoor classes a day. The classes were limited to 25% capacity, and to enter the class, the attendees had to have their temperature checked, get screened for COVID-19 symptoms, and wear a face mask. However, the attendees were allowed to take off their masks during the actual class—and that's exactly what most people did.

Turns out, 76% of attendees didn't regularly use their masks during these classes. And even though people had to bring their own mats and weights and stay at least six feet apart from each other, 49 of the 81 people who went to the in-person fitness classes contracted COVID-19. Six others had probable cases. Of those with confirmed or probable cases, 78% participated in classes while potentially infectious. The rates of COVID-19 were higher among those who didn't frequently wear a mask during the class.

In Hawaii, 21 cases of COVID-19 were traced to an instructor who did not wear a mask during class. Back in June, just four hours before the instructor's symptoms began, he had led a one-hour stationary cycling class with 10 participants. The room's doors and windows were closed, and there were three large floor fans pointed at the class to keep the participants cool. The instructor was on a pedestal, facing the class, shouting instructions and motivations. Following the facility's protocol, no one wore a mask while exercising. All 10 attendees contracted COVID-19.

One of those attendees happened to be a personal trainer at a different facility. Before his symptoms developed—and before his eventual intensive care unit hospitalization—he went on to provide personal training and to teach kickboxing classes. The sessions he led in his facility—where he and all but two participants were maskless—were linked to 11 more cases of COVID-19.

While data on COVID-19 transmission in exercise facilities are limited, reports—now including these most recent two—show that increased respiratory exertion can facilitate transmission. And so, these cases highlight the importance of wearing a mask and following other preventative measures while working out with others. "To reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in fitness facilities, staff members and patrons should wear a mask, and facilities should enforce consistent and correct mask use (including during high-intensity activities) and physical distancing, improve ventilation, and remind patrons and staff members to stay home when ill," the CDC wrote in the reports.

Of course, exercising outdoors or virtually could even further reduce the risk of spreading or catching COVID-19, the CDC points out. But if you are going to be going to a gym, fitness center, or studio, the CDC has a list of factors that can lower the risk of spreading COVID-19. These include:

  • Choosing to go to a facility that requires all staff and attendees to wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose at all times.
  • Limiting high-intensity activities to the outdoors.
  • Keeping your workouts as brief as possible to avoid prolonged exposure.
  • Going during off-peak times to avoid crowds.
  • Choosing to go to a facility that has high ceilings, ventilation practices, and portable air cleaners.

"Exercising and physical activity are important for physical and mental health and should be continued for healthy living, especially during the coronavirus crisis," according to the CDC. "However, it is necessary to take precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of COVID-19."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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