How L.A.’s Gymgoers Are Weighing the Pandemic Risk—and How Gyms Are Keeping Them Safe

A rising COVID-19 case count and outbreak scares haven’t kept people away from the city’s reopened gyms

To what extent are people willing to potentially risk their health to stay fit? Angelenos have been grappling with that question since June 12, when gyms and fitness facilities were allowed to reopen following a three-month shutdown, despite L.A.’s climbing COVID-19 case count. (As of July 8, there were 123,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in L.A. County.)

Gyms are taking mandated precautions, but the extra effort hasn’t prevented outbreak scares. In late June, fitness instructors and trainers at Equinox refused to work after a member at the gym’s Beverly Hills branch tested positive for the virus. At the time, company policy said that masks were required at all times “except when vigorously exercising. During periods of intense exercise, you can remove your mask.” COVID is understood to spread through respiratory droplets, and the risk of infection could increase while multiple people are breathing heavily in enclosed spaces.

“I do not feel safe teaching at Equinox right now,” one of the gym’s long-time instructors, who’d refused to go to work out of fear for their health, said. “I would feel safe if members were required to wear masks at all times.”

Since then, the steady rise in new cases has led the L.A. County Department of Public Health to strengthen restrictions, and mandate that clients have to wear both masks and gloves at all times while exercising at the gym.

Equinox declined to comment, but Crunch Fitness was eager to flaunt the protocols it’s instituted. In addition to enforcing the new mask and glove policies, Crunch has also implemented contactless check-ins, put six feet of space between lifting stations, and added partitions between cardio equipment.

“We are adhering to this new mandate that L.A. Public Health has put out for all members and all staff,” Amita Balla Casey, Crunch’s regional director of West Coast sales, explained following a tour of the gym’s Crescent Heights facility. “As L.A. County presently has some of the highest number of cases in the county, we all have the same intention: to bring cases down.”

Of course, at the gym or anywhere in public, COVID protocols aren’t foolproof. While masks are considered a main line of defense in the war against the coronavirus, the average fabric face-covering isn’t 100 percent effective. As for gloves, an article in The Conversation explains thatif someone has touched a contaminated surface with a gloved hand, they are just as likely to transmit contamination as someone who hasn’t worn gloves. Failing to change gloves when needed is no different from failing to wash your hands.” (It’s worth noting that while it’s possible to pick up the virus on surfaces, the CDC says it doesn’t spread easily that way.)

For some people, the potential risk of returning to the gym is outweighed by the mental health benefits. According to a recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago, which found happiness has dipped at a five-decade low, the majority of the 2,190 adults surveyed felt anxious, depressed, lonely or hopeless in at least one of the last seven days when the survey was conducted. Exercise releases endorphins, triggers euphoria, and can reduce depression.

Other people still have their images in mind. “I was at the point where I felt so fat, I could deal with a mask for the privilege of of having access to something other than jogging outside and the 25-pound dumbbells I bought at Target,” quips Crunch member John B. “I feel fine working out there. I don’t feel they are doing everything they should be doing, but it’s not stopping me from working out there.”

Gyms’ facility managers are tasked with frequently disinfecting equipment, but that can be a tall order in some of the larger corporate gyms with lots of equipment and a high volume of clients. Beth Bishop, owner of Phoenix Effect, thinks this gives small, boutique workout centers like hers a leg up.

“I know those gyms are doing the best they can to have workers go around and sterilize the equipment as much as they can, and ask their members to disinfect things. But when you have hundreds of people around, are you really able to do that?” Bishop wonders. “Where as we have one coach to 12 people, so everyone knows each other and cares for each other.”

Besides keeping the gym’s front and back doors open for more airflow, Bishop has also converted a rear parking lot into an open-air workout space for even more peace of mind.

As the owner of a small business with much tighter margins than its corporate counterparts, Bishop is hopeful the safety protocols that have been put in place are effective so there isn’t a second shutdown.

“It hasn’t been easy. Our revenue is down,” Bishop confesses. “If we do have to close again, well, we’re the Phoenix Effect. Phoenixes don’t die easily.”

RELATED: This Is Why Everyone’s Suddenly Canceling Their Equinox Membership

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