Gyms May Start Reopening Soon—But Will it Be Safe to Go Back?

What you need to know before you break a sweat back at the studio.

During a coronavirus task force news briefing on April 16, President Trump revealed a three-phase plan for "Opening Up America Again." Though there’s no set date for when it will actually go into effect—and it will vary state by state and likely, even city by city—non-essential business owners and individuals have begun to prepare for what a reopening plan will look like.

On the list of those businesses given the green-light to reopen: gyms. The question is, will big box gyms and small studios alike be safe enough to go back to in this first phase? And what can you do to protect yourself if you decide to go? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is it safe to return gyms when they reopen?

Gavis Harris, MD, infectious diseases physician and critical care medicine fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center tells Health that returning to gyms at this time could be dangerous. “From a biologic and physiologic perspective, it’s a bad idea,” he says, citing that the novel coronavirus is spread via droplets, so people in gyms can easily spread it this way. He adds that the virus can also potentially last on shared surfaces for days. “Couple that with an enclosed space, the risk of exposure is exceptionally high,” he says.

When gyms do reopen, Harris mentions the importance of wearing masks for those working out and those working at the gym. He also says that one major problem with gym reopening is that no firm protocols from public health experts have been put in place for gym owners, so really, it’s up to individual gyms to create their own plans to help keep you safe and keep their spaces disinfected.

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The number-one thing all gyms will have to do, according to Harris, is thoroughly clean and disinfect surfaces after every single client uses them, and create adequate ventilation, so air particles don’t hang around. Social distancing remains important at the gym too, he says, suggesting gym goers bring their own wipes and frequently wash or sanitize their hands throughout their workout, as well.

To help with some of the protocol for what gym owners should do to keep their spaces safe, the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the fitness industry’s nonprofit, has created a list of best practices, including questions operators should ask before reopening, Meredith Poppler, vice president of communications and leadership engagement of the IHRSA tells Health. The list of questions includes those about staff and visitor screenings, social distancing, and sanitation—all important factors to set in place before letting people back into the gym.

Dr. Harris doesn’t discount the benefits of exercise and gyms in general, giving individuals the motivation to move as well as socialize. But he cautions against returning to these spaces too soon. “At this time, I would strongly advise against going to public gyms and other fitness clubs unless appropriate health measures can be assured,” he says. This is especially true for those with underlying health conditions.

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What will gyms look like when they reopen?

The good news: Most gyms have been preparing for reopening since closing. For example, Life Time, with 150 locations across the country, has created a 53-page document to detail exactly what that will look like—and released a video and online plan to members last week to get the word out on safety precautions for both the gym staff and visitors. There's no set reopening date yet, but the dates will likely stagger for different locations.

Life Time in particular plans to increase the frequency of cleaning, offer more disinfectant products to clients, and limit the number of clients allowed in classes and at the gym overall, Amy Williams, manager of public relations for Life Time tells Health. They’ll also have signs and markers throughout the gym to reinforce social-distancing rules, place weight machines farther apart, and only allow the use of every other cardio machine and every other locker in locker rooms.

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Staff will also have temperature checks before heading into work and will be in masks. Williams says they’ll encourage gym-goers to wear masks as well, and clients will also have the option for temperature checks before entering the space. “We want to make sure members feel good, confident, and safe when they come back, so that’s swaying our decision [on when to reopen],” Williams says.

ClassPass, with more than 30,000 partners across 30 countries, also says they’ll reopen classes on the platform as soon as gyms say they’re ready. They’ll also remind the studios to update class capacity, as many will likely lower the number of people per workout, Mandy Menaker, senior public relations manager, tells Health. She adds that more than two-thirds of their partners have opted in for virtual class offerings—the site has 50,000 livestreams a week—and ClassPass will continue to forego their commission on those digital classes through June 1, so that will likely remain an option even after some studios open.

Poppler says that while the IHRSA thinks it’s important for gyms to open, it’s also crucial that each one does so when they’re ready and have created a safe space. “To be 100% crystal clear, while we believe health and fitness clubs are vital to their communities and should be included in phase 1 openings across the country, we want this done as safe as is practically possible,” Poppler says. “On the state level, IHRSA is reaching out to all 50 governors, explaining that clubs will work with their state’s health department to ensure clubs open as soon as is possible when it is safe to do so in a way that puts the health of staff, members, and communities first.”

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What can I do to stay safe at the gym?

First: Don’t go back to the gym if you don’t feel confident in its cleanliness—and don’t be afraid to ask about what your gym is doing to curb the spread of coronavirus.

As Harris mentioned, masks and your own cleaning supplies are always smart. When you’re at the gym, make sure to wipe down any equipment before and after use. Also, the same precautions stand of washing your hands as often as possible and not touching your face. “Health clubs are taking the extra steps necessary to provide a clean and safe environment, but everyone has an essential role to play—staff and members alike,” says Poppler.

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Virtual classes likely aren’t going away for a while either, so until cases of COVID-19 drop in your area and officials say it’s OK to return to gyms and you feel confident doing so, you might want to stick to those at-home options. When you do venture out, be super diligent about cleaning and practice the safety protocols you’ve likely been doing for weeks now.

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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