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'No one is fighting for us': Gym owners insist they should be allowed stay open under Levels 4 and 5

The call comes from a group of independent gym owners.

Image: Shutterstock/Skydive Erick

GYM OWNERS HAVE set up a petition calling on the government to allow them to open their businesses under Level 4 and 5. 

A 20-strong group has banded together under the name Independent Gym Owners Ireland to start the campaign, saying that gyms should be allowed to stay open as they help people with their mental and physical health.

While gyms are allowed to open under Level 3, with restricted numbers and certain safety conditions, they have to close under Levels 4 and 5. The business owners fear that they are in for a year – or years – of constant openings and closings, and that this would have not just an impact on them, but on their clients too. 

Eoghan Gallagher runs the independent gym Elev8 Health and Fitness in South County Dublin. He opened his gym in 2014 and has a staff of four.  

“Since reopening we have put in place every precaution possible,” he told TheJournal.ie. “If a second lockdown were to take place, gyms would be one of the first things to shut down once again.” 

“We are calling on the government to have some sense and not take away an outlet that the people of this country need, mentally and physically.”

“No one is fighting for us,” said Gallagher of why he gathered the group of 20 gym owners together. 

“I fully do think we should be allowed open at level 5,” he said. He questioned why fast-food outlets are classed as essential service and gyms are not. 

Gallagher said he had contacted Ireland Active – the national association for the leisure, health and fitness sector, which represents 350 publicly and privately-owned businesses – about the issue, but had not heard back. 

Zoom classes

When the initial lockdown happened, Gallagher had just flown home from a holiday in New York. He closed the gym and gave equipment to clients so that they could train at home, and set up regular Zoom and Facebook fitness classes.

The gym was closed for 14 weeks. 

“We had a huge drop-off in attendances in Zoom,” said Gallagher. “It became demoralising for them – they hadn’t got their place to go to work out. They were able to go walking and running as the weather was good. If we go to a lockdown again, that won’t be the case. It will be dark, wet, cold.”

When the gym reopened, he said that “the buzz around it was insane”. It held on to the majority of its membership.  

“When we originally went into lockdown we had 60% revenue loss and then after we got back, we got back to where we were really quickly, and grew a bit. We’ve grown to the stage where I’m looking to move because of this as well – it’s pushed everything on. We need more space because of social distancing. But if we go into lockdown again I don’t know where we will be.”

Gallagher said he fears that closing the gyms is “just going to be putting people into a dark place again”.

Gallagher said he had witnessed the impact the gym closing and reopening had on some clients’ mental health. “90% of my members would be working from home now,” he said. “And if they don’t have the outlet to get to the gym or out of the house, they’re going to be stuck in their house 24/7. So the hour they have for going to the gym is probably the best hour of the day.”

“Training is a major thing for mental health as it is for physical,” he said. “The government is always saying you have to be fit and well to fight coronavirus.”

shutterstock_1685700223 Source: Shutterstock/Neptunestock

The gym keeps to the restrictions by limiting training groups to four people. Clients have to adhere by strict social distancing and aren’t allowed to share equipment. Gallagher said he has introduced temperature checks, hand sanitisers, and a special electrostatic sanitisation gun that cost over €2,000. The gym is deep-cleaned every week.

“We’ve taken every measure that the government has said but we still haven’t got that much advice from government over what we should be doing or not doing,” he said. He added that he understands that some classes – like spin classes – might not be suitable to open during the stricter levels. 

But he said the government “need to be a little more concrete in what they’re saying”, and that there is some confusion among people. 

If gyms are allowed to open in the stricter levels, Gallagher said that the HSE should send out inspectors to ensure gym owners are adhering to the guidelines.

He said there is “a lot of fear” among gym owners about the impact of waves of opening and closing. 

I’m fighting for the industry to stay open. Mentally, physically we do much more good than fast food restaurants and outdoor pubs.

Weather and outdoor classes

Scott Furlong of Fitness Health Performance in Churchtown is another gym owner calling for change. 

Unlike at Gallagher’s gym, he has been able to hold outdoor classes under canopies. “It was grand during the summer, but obviously daylight is an issue now, and the weather,” he said.

He said that he is cognisant of the mental health issues that members of his gym may be struggling with, and he knows some clients live on their own. The oldest member of the gym is in their early 70s.

“For some people it’s not feasible to go for a run or walk outside,” pointed out Furlong.

Furlong’s gym is “only running on 50% at best” and is opening for extra hours to fit people in. Like Gallagher, he cited the cost of cleaning supplies, sanitisers and sprays to keep the gym a safe space. 

Furlong, who has been in business for three years, also raised the issue of uncertainty for gym owners in not knowing when the next shutdown might come. 

He fears for the mental health of gym-goers if there is another closure soon: “People would struggle mentally”. 

He said that online classes aren’t always a suitable replacement for going to the gym.

“The last thing you want to do after an eight-hour work day is to try and follow something on Zoom for 45 mins. It’s not possible to get [the same] endorphins.”

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“We’re just trying to make people fitter, healthier and feel better about themselves,” said Furlong. “That’s what we all want at the end of the day.” 

Coronavirus and gyms

In the latest report on Covid-19 clusters in Ireland, the Health Protection Surveillance centre reported nine related to “sporting activity/fitness”.

However, this did not specify if any of these cases are related to gyms:

PastedImage-39241 Source: HSPC

While there hasn’t been widespread study of how coronavirus can spread in gyms, we do know that the virus spreads through airborne droplets and via surfaces.

This is why social distancing has been implemented globally, and why gyms have to spread their patrons apart from each other – to curb the chance of people inhaling those droplets or touching contaminated surfaces. Given that gyms frequently have equipment that is used by multiple people, there are further concerns around sanitisation.

One study which took place in South Korea gives an insight into what can happen regarding the spread of Covid-19 when people undertake vigorous exercise in confined spaces.

At the February 15 workshop, instructors trained intensely for 4 hours. Among 27 instructors who participated in the workshop, 8 had positive real-time reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR) results for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes COVID-19; 6 were from Cheonan and 1 was from Daegu, which had the most reported COVID-19 cases in South Korea. All were asymptomatic on the day of the workshop.

The study shows the difference between exercise carried out in small classes, and more densely-packed classes.

“Characteristics that might have led to transmission from the instructors in Cheonan include large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts. The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets,” said the study.

It said that classes from which secondary COVID-19 cases were identified “included 5–22 students in a room ≈60 m2 during 50 minutes of intense exercise”.

However, it notes: “We did not identify cases among classes with <5 participants in the same space”.

It also said that in one class, an instructor taught Pilates and yoga for classes of 7–8 students in the same facility at the same time as another instructor, but none of her students tested positive for the virus.

We hypothesize that the lower intensity of Pilates and yoga did not cause the same transmission effects as those of the more intense fitness dance classes.

While this is by no means a definitive study, it does shed some light on what researchers are discovering about the spread of Covid-19 and gyms.

In addition, while people are asymptomatic they can still expel viral particles. Plus, people may be breathing harder while working out, which can be another concern.

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