We trust the people in charge. Notice that many of us didn’t ask “when is it safe to go back to the gym?” but rather “when is my gym opening?” An outbreak traced to a Canadian spin studio drives this point home. The gym followed the rules, but the rules weren’t good enough.
The outbreak, reported to involve at least 69 people, started in a spin studio. Bikes were distanced from each other, making sure people were six feet apart. Masks were required before and after classes, but not during exercise itself. The result was that up to 21 maskless people were breathing heavy in the same small indoor space. Of course people got sick.
Six feet is not a force field
Masks and distancing work together, because neither is perfect on their own. Remember that the coronavirus can almost certainly travel in droplets that are small enough to float through the air. The six-foot rule reduces your exposure but it doesn’t guarantee that you’re safe.
Masks are still important
Many areas’ regulations don’t require masks “during exertion” or “while actively exercising.” This exception is based on convenience, not science. The coronavirus doesn’t decide not to infect people if you happen to be exercising when you expel it from your mouth and nose. In fact, when you’re exercising, you’re likely to be breathing harder and are probably putting the people around you at higher risk than if you’re not.
We’ve known this for a while! A fitness dance workshop in Korea in March resulted in 112 cases among participants and their contacts. “Vigorous exercise in confined spaces should be minimized during outbreaks,” write the authors of a report on the outbreak that was published online in May.
Yes, it sucks to exercise in a mask. It really, really does. (Often literally, as you’re inhaling mouthfuls of cloth between reps.) As a result, even in places where masks are mandated during exercise, people often pull their mask down. I’ve heard of plenty of gyms where the management doesn’t enforce mask rules because they just don’t care to. (Perhaps some are worried about being able to keep members in a tenuous economy; in a sense, I understand.)
What to do
Personally, you would not catch me dead in an indoor fitness studio right now, with people doing cardio all around me, whether I am wearing a mask or not. I run outside, I’m lucky enough to have weights at home, and if I go to an indoor gym I go rarely, at off-peak times, keep my distance from others, stay away from cardio equipment, and I wear a mask over my mouth and nose.
Be wary of any exercise in a place that’s not well-ventilated, because those aerosol droplets could be hanging in the air. Six feet between bikes isn’t enough; neither is a plexiglass barrier if it doesn’t actually seal off one person’s air space from another.
Heavy breathing ranks alongside singing and shouting as a way of generating those smaller droplets. Studios with loud music may be especially bad, says the medical officer of health from the city with the spin studio outbreak, because people tend to shout to be heard.
Even in less-risky gym environments, like areas dedicated to weights rather than aerobics, keep your mask on. If you can’t tolerate an exercise with a mask over your mouth and nose, then in the time of COVID-19 you probably shouldn’t be doing it near people at all. Yes, I hate this fact too, but it’s not because I like being a buzzkill; it’s just the way the virus works.