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Gyms Want A Chance To Show They Can Be Safe

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Gyms shut down quickly when the U.S. coronavirus outbreak began. The rationale was clear. People exercising indoors and breathing heavily could easily spread the virus. But as NPR's Will Stone reports, gyms are now pushing back.

(SOUNDBITE OF GYM AMBIENCE)

WILL STONE, BYLINE: At NW Fitness in Seattle, even a set of squats requires a mask. Every other cardio machine is off-limits, and the floor is lined with blue tape to show where each person can work out. None of this bothers Esmery Corniel. It's better than when his gym was closed.

ESMERY CORNIEL: I was honestly losing my mind - just really stressed, anxiety, couldn't sleep.

STONE: Now he's back in here, using the punching bag.

CORNIEL: Every day, I hit the bag. Everybody wears their masks. Everybody's socially distanced, so there's no problem here at all.

STONE: The mornings are much quieter now. Washington state only allows about 10 people at a time to use this 4,000-square-foot gym.

JOHN CARRICO: It's drastically reduced our ability to serve our community.

STONE: That's John Carrico, who bought this small gym with his wife Jessica at the end of last year.

JOHN CARRICO: We've lost over 250 members in the last three months.

STONE: No one's signing up, either. Meanwhile, their costs have only grown. They need more staff to clean the equipment and to make sure people are wearing masks, not crowding together.

JESSICA CARRICO: If the trend continues, we won't be able to stay open. That's for sure.

STONE: Jessica is also a nurse and says she trusted the decision to close gyms at first, but her feelings changed when she saw lines of people outside pot (ph) shops and restaurants.

JESSICA CARRICO: The arbitrary decision that had been made was very clear. It became really frustrating for me as well.

STONE: Many gym owners feel like the Carricos - that their industry is getting a bad rap during the pandemic, treated like bars and other high-risk settings.

JOHN CARRICO: This fear-based propaganda that gyms are a cesspool of coronavirus, which is just super-not true.

HELEN DURKIN: We should not be lumped with bars and restaurants. It's a whole different thing.

STONE: Helen Durkin is with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. She says a key difference is that gyms have members, which makes it easier to track down people if there's an outbreak. Industry data gathered on more than 48 million gym visits shows only 1,100 cases were later reported.

DURKIN: The whole idea that it's a risky place to be - around the world, we just aren't seeing those numbers.

STONE: In most states, gyms have reopened to some extent. Usually, capacity is limited. Locker rooms are closed, and group classes are not allowed.

SASKIA POPESCU: The mistake would be to assume that there is no risk.

STONE: Saskia Popescu is an infectious disease epidemiologist based in Phoenix.

POPESCU: It's just that a lot of the prevention strategies have been working. When we start to loosen those, though, is where you're more likely to see clusters occur.

STONE: Popescu and several experts made a chart ranking the danger of getting the coronavirus from different activities. They put gyms as medium-high - not as risky as bars or air travel but more risky than taking a cab. She says many gyms cannot follow through with all the infection control measures.

POPESCU: That's really the challenge with gyms, I think - that there's so much variety in them that it makes it really hard to kind of put them into a single box.

STONE: And some activities are inherently risky. You can space out treadmills, but she says respiratory droplets may travel farther than six feet, especially if someone is breathing heavily.

(SOUNDBITE OF GYM AMBIENCE)

STONE: Back in Washington state, one place that's had an easier time adapting is PRO Club, an enormous upscale gym with plenty of space and employees. Dean Rogers is a personal trainer here.

DEAN ROGERS: They provided us with masks. We've installed a lot of, you know, new technology and things to help keep us safe - temperature checks daily, wellness checks daily.

STONE: Rogers knows this isn't the norm everywhere. Actually, his mother contracted the coronavirus while at her gym.

ROGERS: I was upset to find out her gym had no guidelines they were following, no safety precautions, really.

STONE: But Rogers thinks that her experience is an exception.

ROGERS: For the most part, people that come to a gym are in it for, you know, their own health and fitness and wellness. Here, definitely, I feel like we have good compliance.

STONE: With fall approaching and more Americans looking to exercise indoors, gym owners will have to show it's possible to work out there safely during a pandemic.

Will Stone, NPR News, Seattle.

PFEIFFER: This story is part of NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE MAN GROUP'S "TONE SPOKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.