By Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — A group of North Carolina gym owners say Gov. Roy Cooper’s continued shutdown is wrongfully painting gyms as dangerous carriers of the coronavirus.
Data from other states — and countries — show gyms may be a low-risk carrier for COVID-19 if they adhere to strict cleaning and social distancing measures.
On Aug. 5, Cooper again paused North Carolina in his modified Phase Two, forcing gyms, bars, and many other businesses to stay closed while restaurants, salons, barbershops, and tattoo parlors continued operating at 50% capacity. North Carolina now is one of only two states without open gyms and fitness centers. Working out means heavy breathing and water droplets, said N.C. health Secretary Mandy Cohen. Since COVID-19 is a viral respiratory pathogen, open gyms would mean a higher risk of infection, she said.
But some data show a low-risk of virus transmission at gyms when compared to types of gathering places already open in North Carolina. Louisiana, which reopened its workout centers in May, has traced just five outbreaks and 31 COVID-19 cases back to gyms, the state’s health department reported Aug. 12. Restaurants in that state were linked to 38 outbreaks and 167 cases. Reports of 16 outbreaks and 107 coronavirus cases were traced back to office spaces. Louisiana traces its highest sampling of COVID-19 transmission back to food processing plants, with 24 outbreaks and 589 cases linked to those settings.
The data align with reports from abroad. A June study sponsored by the Norwegian government showed that, with proper social distancing and hygiene rules, Europeans who exercised at gyms weren’t likely to increase the spread of COVID-19.
Norway opened its gyms June 15. Germany and Austria gradually reopened fitness centers beginning in May. The Norway study, done over two weeks in May, randomly selected 3,764 people aged 18 to 64. Half were asked to work out in Oslo gyms. The other half served as a control group. About 81% of the workout group visited a gym at least once, and 38.5% went six times or more. Machines were cleaned after each use. People exercised more than six feet apart. They weren’t allowed to use showers. Masks weren’t required.
About 3,016 participants were then tested for COVID-19. One tested positive.
Gyms in North Carolina point to this data as evidence that fitness and wellness really can coincide. Some have even tried to educate Cooper on their ability to reopen safely. To no avail.
Orangetheory Growth Partners is a private equity business backing 20 or so popular Orangetheory franchise gyms in North Carolina. OTGP, along with Planet Fitness, Crunch Fitness, and a few other franchises, formed a multi-state advocacy group called Fitness Operators for Responsible Reopening. The goal was to work with Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human services. In May, FORR created reopening plans and shared them with Cooper’s office and the department. The feedback was positive, at first, Orangetheory representatives told Carolina Journal during an Aug. 11 conference call. Gyms were set to reopen May 22.
Then plans fell apart. Cooper, citing science and data, forced gyms to remain closed. They’ll remain dark until at least Sept. 12. Even New York, which enforced some of the most stringent closings in the country, will reopen gyms before North Carolina. On Aug. 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all fitness centers could restart operations Sept. 2, though indoor classes in New York may be delayed beyond that date. People must wear masks at all times, and gyms must operate at 33% capacity.
Meanwhile, North Carolina gym owners are tired of waiting for Cooper’s green light.
The governor’s decision to leave gyms shuttered was an “11th-hour bait-and-switch,” OTGP CEO Kristie Shifflette told CJ.
“Now we have a massive stain on the industry,” she said. “We’re now labeled dangerous because the governor, for whatever reason, pulled gyms out at the last minute.”
“What does he know that we don’t know?” She wondered.
So, what explanation of the gym closures has Cooper given Orangetheory, and other gym owners across the state? CJ asked OTGP’s policy spokeswoman, Leigh Cunius. Cunius is in charge of collecting information about viral transmission in other states’ open gyms. She sends that research to lawmakers — and the health department — every week.
She paused, silence hanging over the phone line. A few colleagues interjected their thoughts, breaking the pause. Finally, Cunius answered.
“It’s been unclear.”
Unclear. Difficult. Confusing.
Those words are familiar to people like Allison Vrhovac and Graham Brown, loyal members of Orangetheory gyms in central and eastern North Carolina. Vrhovac, a mom and lifestyle blogger from Fuquay-Varina, is a member of the location in Holly Springs. Brown, a physician’s assistant in Wilmington, regularly attended classes at that city’s Orangetheory gym. Before COVID-19, that is.
There’s lots to miss, they told CJ during phone conversations Aug. 17. The workouts. The encouragement. The camaraderie.
Keeping up workouts at home is difficult, Vrhovac said. She’s started an accountability group on Instagram. It’s going OK. But nothing can replace the high-intensity gym workout she’s grown to love.
CJ asked Vrhovac and Brown if they worry about risks. Would they go back tomorrow, if allowed? Do they worry about infection?
“I would 100% return,” Vrhovac said. She trusts Orangetheory to keep things clean. Keep members separated.
“As the months have gone past, I’m just angrier by the day. I guess you could say angry at the government. I’ll give you bars,” she said of Cooper’s decision to keep private clubs shuttered. “But gyms? I’ve been a five-day-a-week [workout] person for four years.”
Brown — due to his experience in the medical field — is more cautious. But he sees countless patients who are suffering without their gyms and fitness routines. He thinks Orangetheory is capable of keeping things clean and safe. People are shopping without masks at Wilmington grocery stores, he said. If rules aren’t even being enforced in the businesses that are open, then why can’t gyms — especially those with safety plans — be allowed to reopen?
Besides, Brown said, mental health is critical. Working out is his route to better moods and quality of life.
“I stand behind this 100%, that exercise is probably better than any kind of medicine we can take,” Brown said.
There’s no telling when fitness centers will be allowed to reopen, OTGP President Matt Shifflette told CJ, his frustration audible. The company has remained in touch with Cooper’s administration. But the rent is still due. And so long as Orangetheory gyms remain closed, members aren’t paying fees.
Some North Carolina gym owners, unable to pay rent without active members, have reopened in defiance of Cooper’s rules. CJ spoke with one who restarted fitness classes June 1.
“It was a tough few first days because I was stressed about what could happen and my members were a bit unsure,” the owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an Aug. 17 email. “Since then, we’ve ran over 500 classes and have had zero positive cases and zero pushback from our members.”
People can talk about vaccines and masks, the gym owner said. But maintaining health and wellness is the only solution. The list of vulnerable people will grow as North Carolinians are forced to remain inactive.
“Sitting at home and gaining 1-2 pounds a week is far from the solution, but yet that is what our leadership is forcing society to do.”