‘Nobody wants to see the gyms shut down’: Fitness centers cope with new COVID masking rules

RedZone Fitness in Weston has never known life without restrictions.

The gym opened in July, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the facility’s members and staff have had to grapple with sanitizing, masking and socially distancing requirements ever since. That said, given the smallness of classes, patrons were able to stay far enough apart that they didn’t have to wear masks while working out, said Elana Goldblatt, part owner, studio manager and lead coach at RedZone Fitness

“People had to wear a mask while walking to their spot (and elsewhere in the gym),” Goldblatt said — just not while working out.

That has changed.

On Nov. 20, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order that, among things, required patrons of all gyms and fitness centers in the state to wear masks at all times, “with no exceptions.”

Previously, establishments didn’t have to require that patrons wear a mask during workouts as long as they maintained at least 12 feet of social distance while exercising. The capacity limit at gyms was also reduced, from 50 percent to 25 percent.

The new regulations are an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Connecticut, which has spiked over the past several weeks. Requiring face coverings at all times can be potentially helpful in the gym environment, said Keith Grant, senior system director of infection prevention for Hartford HealthCare.

“One of the primary (COVID-19) symptoms that we’re most concerned with is coughing,” Grant said during a Tuesday press conference. “The mechanics of coughing is moving the actual particles forward. That is also seen with an increase in the rate of breathing, such as that which happen with exercising.”

Wearing a mask can help prevent those particles from being pushed out, and can keep spread down, Grant said.

Goldblatt said the new restrictions pose some challenges for clients. The gym offers different classes every day and, on Monday, the first day of classes at the gym following the mask requirement, RedZone had a cardio workout class.

“It was hard on Monday because it was a very intense day and the very first day (people were) wearing a mask to work out,” Goldblatt said. “But I think the longer you wear mask while working out, the easier it is. It’s like working out — the first day you do it is going be harder than the fifth day.”

It is another hurdle at a time that’s been full of them, but Goldblatt said if the new guidelines allow gyms like RedZone to remain operational, she and her clients will try to take them in stride.

“We are open,” Goldblatt said. “We still have clients. I will take this as a win.”

Greta Wagner, executive director of Chelsea Piers in Stamford, had a similar attitude. Before the new regulations, she said, “We had a few mask-free zones where people could work out because we had 12-foot distancing. It was very appreciated by clients. It made it much more enjoyable, when people could work out mask-free.”

But, she said, while people don’t love the new mask requirements, they are grateful that they can still go to the gym. “Everybody’s so stressed out right now, that if that’s what they have to do to get their activity in, they’ll do it. Nobody wants to see the gyms shut down.”

Both Wagner and Goldblatt had some concerns that wearing the masks could make workouts more difficult for patrons, and Grant said that’s a valid worry.

“Wearing a mask is obviously restricting the breathing itself and can definitely have some impact,” he said. He recommended that people take it easy the first few times they work out with a mask on “just to see exactly what your capabilities are,” Grant said.

It’s unclear exactly what the potential risks of working out with a mask are, but a small recent study out of Canada indicated that the impact was minimal, at least in certain groups.

The study, published earlier this month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, looked at the effects of working out in a surgical mask, a cloth mask, or no mask in 14 healthy people (seven men and seven women) with an average age of about 28.

“When expressed relative to peak exercise performance, no differences were evident between wearing or not wearing a mask for arterial oxygen saturation, tissue oxygenation index, rating of perceived exertion, or heart rate at any time during the exercise tests,” the study reads. “Wearing a face mask during vigorous exercise had no discernable detrimental effect on blood or muscle oxygenation, and exercise performance in young, healthy participants.”

Still, Goldblatt said she’s continuing to watch patrons to see if they get overwhelmed by working out while masked. “I’m watching my members very closely now and telling them to take a mask break if they have to,” she said.

Goldblatt said, initially, even she found the mask somewhat restrictive. “On Monday I struggled,” she said. “I teach multiple classes and I’m in very good shape and I struggled.”

Despite possible issues, the masking requirement “can only help” prevent the spread of COVID in gyms and fitness centers, said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease at Bridgeport Hospital.

“I agree with keeping (a mask) on the whole time,” Saul said. “You’re in an enclosed environment… If gyms are going to remain open, this is the way it’s got to go.”

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