Frustration mounts as gyms remain closed. Are they really that risky?

Aug 6, 2020

Indoor gyms are some of the few, last remaining businesses that have had to stay closed in New York State, and there is no word yet from Gov. Andrew Cuomo as to when they can reopen. Gym owners continue to suffer from the closures, but health experts say gyms can pose a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The indoor gyms of the Aspen Athletic Clubs in central New York have been closed since March. Owner Nikki Polos said they have been doing virtual and outdoor workouts. But business, she said, is awful.

“We have been losing members without new members joining,” Polos said. “Our expenses are piling up. Our revenue is nonexistent.”

Polos said she was impressed with how Cuomo handled the pandemic, at first. But as gyms continued to be excluded from the state’s phased-in reopenings, she ended up filing a lawsuit against the governor and New York State. Hundreds of gyms are also suing the state in a class action lawsuit.

“As Cuomo himself has stated, the counties should have some power and some control,” Polos said. “I’m fighting for my business and my members and my employees.”

Polos said she’s confident they can reopen safely with touchless check in, plexiglass dividers and directional arrows.

Kathryn Anderson, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said cleaning, spacing out machines and limiting the number of patrons are good ways to assess the situation if and when gyms reopen. But, she said, gyms can be a higher risk scenario for COVID.

“People may be exercising, breathing deeply, producing more of these COVID infected droplets that could spread from person to person,” Anderson said. “There are a lot more shared surfaces in terms of weights, yoga mats and even treadmills.”

Some may be less likely to wear masks when exercising. Anderson said there are examples of dozens of COVID-19 cases coming from fitness classes in other countries. But there are gyms in other states taking it seriously and she said there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Health experts don’t fully understand the transmission of the virus indoors. But Anderson said, central New York’s low transmission rate right now could be attributed to people being more outdoors in the summer months.

"So we need to be very cautious going into the fall and winter," Anderson said.