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Gyms stay open as COVID-19 cases rise: What to know about safety

An expert shares four tips to stay as safe as possible back at the gym.

Whether or not it is safe to return to the gym has become a puzzling question for people as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many states.

In Florida, one of the epicenters of the pandemic, where the positivity rate now stands at 18.3%, the state's phase 2 reopening order that went into effect in June allows gyms to operate at full capacity.

In another COVID-19 hotspot, Arizona, the state's governor included indoor gyms among the list of businesses forced to pause operations as the state sees a surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

As researchers learn more about COVID-19, some are also pointing to growing evidence that the virus may be spread through small aerosolized particles, also called airborne transmission, which could pose a problem in enclosed places like gyms.

How to know if it's safe to return to the gym

People who live in areas where COVID-19 still has a major presence and people who fall under the high-risk category -- those age 65 and older and people with preexisting conditions like heart disease and diabetes -- should exercise caution when it comes to returning to a gym or boutique fitness studio, according to Dr. Simone Wildes, a Boston-based infectious disease specialist.

"My take right now is it really depends on where you live," she said. "Here in Massachusetts, our numbers are really good, meaning we don't have as many cases and the trends have been really good for the last couple of weeks. I feel comfortable going to the gym here."

"On the flip side, if I live in Florida, Arizona, Texas, where the numbers keep escalating, I really don't think it's a good time to go to the gym right now," Wildes said.

Wildes said the key to knowing when it is safe to exercise inside a gym comes down to following the science and knowing what is best for you, including whether you are high-risk and whether your gym is following proper safety protocols.

"Don't just say, 'It's open so it's fine for me,'" she said. "Not everybody follows the same guidelines. ... You have to be careful to make sure that all the steps and protocols are really sorted out and you feel safe as an individual to go there."

The risk of transmission of COVID-19 at the gym comes not as much from sweat but through frequently touched surfaces, like weights, strength machines and treadmills, that you may touch and then touch your face, eyes, nose and mouth, increasing the risk of contracting the virus, according to Wildes.

It is also more difficult to maintain the recommended 6 feet of physical distance from another person inside a gym than it would be outdoors or inside your own home. The main way the virus is spread is through respiratory droplets via coughing and sneezing, but also when breathing hard and forcefully exhaling, as commonly occurs during exercise, experts say.

Some gyms are requiring users to make reservations ahead of time, which Wildes pointed to as a best practice for minimizing crowds.

Gymgoers should wear masks at all times, except when they are doing cardio at a socially distant machine, according to Wildes. They should also be flexible with their plans, because whether or not it is safe to go to their local gym may change from day to day or week to week.

"We have to pretty much assess daily what's going on," she said. "Things change rapidly as we've all seen with COVID-19."

Data shows that outdoor and socially distant activities are the safest, so this summer is the best time to pick up activities like swimming, cycling, running and walking that can be done outdoors and far apart from others, according to Wildes.

"Physical exercise is so important and I want people to go out and do exercise," she said. "Smaller groups, using good hygiene and being socially distanced outside are best."

If you are ready to head back to the gym, here are Wildes' four recommendations to stay as safe as possible.

1. Practice safe social distancing: Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other people in the gym, Wildes recommended.

2. Clean equipment before and after use: "Definitely clean the equipment before and after use and use hand sanitizer between equipment use. Make sure the gym has hand sanitizer supplies and hand-washing stations easily available. You shouldn't have to walk down the aisle or through people to access those."

3. Wear a cloth face covering: "The CDC has recommended that a cloth face covering be worn in public settings where other social distancing measures will be difficult to be enforced, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Wear cloth face coverings that you can breathe through comfortably and your nose and mouth are fully covered. The mask should fit snugly against the sides of your face so there are no gaps."

"The face covering should be either tied or secured to prevent slipping while working out. Wash mask after use. Try not to touch your eyes, mouth or nose when removing the mask from your face and wash or sanitize your hands immediately after removal."

4. Make sure your gym is taking all necessary precautions: Wildes recommends reading your gym's COVID-19 guidelines to make sure the below questions are answered, and asking the gym directly if they are not.

- How is the gym limiting the number of individuals in the facility while maintaining social distancing requirements and how will this be managed?
- Are there temperature checks and symptom checks done in order to enter the gym?
- Are there signs and floor markers in place to help members?
- What are your cleaning protocols? Will equipment be cleaned before and after use with EPA-approved disinfectants? Any additional cleaning with UV lighting?
- How are staff members protected -- i.e. the cleaning staff, personal trainers and front desk staff -- from coronavirus and will they be given personal protective equipment?
- Do you have a return-to-work policy in place for employees that are COVID-19 positive?
- Will there be continual training and updates for staff on COVID-19?
- Will there be group exercise or small group trainings happening?
- How is social distancing on free weights and cardio machines enforced?
- Are all members required to wear a face mask during workouts and do you have masks on hand for those without them?
- Are there extra fans in place and will doors and windows be opened to keep air moving?
- What is the communication protocol for informing members of the gym if others members are diagnosed with COVID-19?

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map