Trumpy Gym Owners Claim Indoor Exercise Is Safe. CDC Says Not So Much.

Pilar Melendez
·6 min read
Francois Nel/Getty Images
Francois Nel/Getty Images

As the coronavirus raged through communities across the U.S., some fed-up gym owners defied state lockdown restrictions in the name of fitness—and freedom—insisting an indoor workout was harmless.

“All of our other safety measures have kept our members safe and as you can tell with the 83,000 visits and no outbreaks linked to the facility,” Ian Smith, a co-owner of Atilitis Gym in New Jersey, told Fox News in May. “People are ready to get back to life and we can do so in a safe manner without shutting down businesses and closing them for good.”

But even indoor gyms that adhere to some COVID-19 mitigation measures, like social distancing and reduced capacity, may be putting patrons at risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Two papers released as part of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality weekly report detail coronavirus outbreaks at gyms in Hawaii and Chicago. In Hawaii, 21 COVID-19 positive cases in July were linked to a fitness instructor who taught classes in the two days before he experienced symptoms. In August, 55 out of the 81 attendees of indoor, high-intensity classes at a gym in Chicago tested positive for COVID-19.

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The CDC noted that “infrequent mask use when participating in indoor exercise classes likely contributed to transmission” in both cases.

“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. Exercising outdoors or virtually could further reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk,” one of the reports states.

The gym outbreaks—which occurred when these areas had low rates of community spread—are especially troubling considering how some Trump-supporting gym owners became notorious leaders of anti-lockdowns efforts last year. Smith, who opened his New Jersey gym live on Fox and Friends alongside a crowd of Trump supporters, now faces a $1.2 million fine for defying state orders.

Scott Kevin Fairlamb, who’s since been accused of punching a D.C. officer in the head during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, made local headlines last May when he announced plans to reopen his gym, Fairlamb Fit, whether the governor allowed it or not.

“[New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy] has overstepped his boundaries and it’s time for these gyms, that are, that are essential to open up,” Fairlamb told CBS New York at the time.

Jacob Lewis, who was also charged in the riots, became a local face of the anti-lockdown movement in California after refusing to close his gym. During the May 1 re-opening of “The Gym” in Victorville, Lewis infamously raised an American flag and set up a cardboard cutout of the Constitution for his patrons to pose with in photos.

“I’m big on the Constitution,” he told Reuters in May, insisting that he did not believe there would be another COVID-19 outbreak. “So if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t, don’t.”

Even a fitness industry trade association tried to lure residents back to the gym, claiming health clubs are “safe and are not contributing to the spread of COVID-19.” The assertion made by MXM, a company that helps fitness centers manage their member experience, came after a study that included more than 2,800 gyms nationwide. Public experts, however, told The Washington Post the study, which relied on self-reported information, contained major flaws—and probably skewed data from gyms that wanted to open their doors.

“It certainly isn’t a blanket statement that all gyms are safe,” Emily Landon, chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, told the Post.

The data released by the CDC on Wednesday shows that even gyms that have undertaken some coronavirus measures are susceptible to major outbreaks.

The Hawaii Department of Health was first notified that a fitness instructor had tested positive for the coronavirus on July 2, 2020. At the time, the state had taken extraordinary measures to curtail the spread, with only 2 to 3 cases per 100,000 residents being reported daily on average.

Because of the low transmission rate in Honolulu, the 37-year-old male fitness instructor was teaching classes at two fitness centers in the city. He taught classes the two days before and the day he began to experience symptoms on June 29. Some of those classes included a one-hour yoga class for 27 people on June 27—where the instructor was the only person to wear a mask—and two high-intensity cycling classes on June 28 and 29.

“At the time of this outbreak, use of masks was not required in fitness facilities,” the report states, adding that nobody wore masks in either of those cycling classes, the report notes.

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After the June 29 class, all 10 participants tested positive for COVID-19. Of those 10 people, six had taken the instructor’s classes the day before and one was another fitness instructor at the gym. That instructor, a 46-year-old man who worked as a personal trainer at a third facility, tested positive on July 4.

By the time he got his positive diagnosis, the 46-year-old instructor had “taught five personal training and small-group kickboxing sessions with 10 participants” each at a different facility. Eleven people ended up testing positive from their exposure to the second instructor.

The report notes that there were limitations to the data, including that participants had multiple dates of exposure, the true number of participants infected with COVID-19 “might have been underestimated,” and that participants might have underreported symptoms or refused testing.

There were similar limitations in the report on Chicago, where COVID-19 cases were identified in 68 percent of people who went to in-person classes held between August 24 and September 4.

“Overall, 43 (78%) attendees with COVID-19 participated in multiple classes while potentially infectious,” the report states. “Twenty-two (40%) attendees with COVID-19 attended on or after the day of symptom onset. Among 58 exercise class attendees who provided information on in-class behaviors, 44 (76%) reported infrequent mask use, including 32 of 38 (84%) attendees with COVID-19 and 12 of 20 (60%) without COVID-19.”

The report adds that among the 91 people who frequented the gym—including the 88 patrons and three employers—10 people did not test for COVID-19 or speak to health officials about any possible symptoms. Most attendees of these high-intensity classes did not wear a mask during the classes.

“The increased respiratory exertion that occurs in the enclosed spaces of indoor exercise facilities facilitates transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in these settings,” the report concludes. “To reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in exercise facilities, employees and patrons should wear a mask, even during high-intensity activities when ≥6 ft apart.”

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