Ontario is reviewing guidelines for gyms and fitness centres after a spin class in Hamilton sparked one of the worst community outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with nearly 70 cases now linked to the studio that said it followed all the rules.
Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate medical officer of health, said Wednesday the province is looking at whether new rules are needed after the coronavirus outbreak at Hamilton’s Spinco studio last month led to 69 cases and potentially left 100 people exposed.
“Even though they followed guidelines, there was obviously significant transmission. So I think we do need to review the guidelines, and that’s in process,” Dr. Yaffe said.
“It’s not like I can say well, just because your gym didn’t have an outbreak there’s no problem. It’s the type of setting and the way people interact that’s the issue.”
The “superspreader” event in Hamilton has sparked concern among infectious-disease specialists, who say it highlights the danger in these environments.
Gyms and fitness studios in Toronto, Ottawa and Peel region were closed as of Saturday, after the Ontario government imposed sweeping new restrictions for at least 28 days on the three hot spot areas that also included closing indoor dining in bars and restaurants.
In Toronto, 21 COVID-19 cases were linked to adult recreational hockey in early October, Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said on Wednesday. In late September, 18 cases were linked to a fitness centre, along with 76 additional contacts. Another 40 infections were linked to a fitness centre in Calgary this summer.
But fitness facilities and classes remain open in other areas of Ontario – including the city of Hamilton, west of Toronto – with rules that include physical distancing, limits of 50 people indoors and masks required only when moving around the gym or studio.
The debate over keeping gyms open in other areas of the province is sparking a larger conversation about how the government makes its pandemic decisions. Toronto Mayor John Tory called the process involving a public-health-measures table “too opaque,” while Ottawa city council passed a motion supporting the business community’s demand that Ontario explain the data behind imposing restrictions on the capital city.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said the province’s decision to close gyms in his city, which is part of Peel, was unexpected because there was no direct transmission in recreational facilities, including yoga and dance studios.
“I am concerned there are more negative impacts for society by shutting down these positive outlets for our residents,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Alex Kucharski, director of the Ontario Independent Fitness Studio Association, said he was disappointed the government is considering further restrictions “with no evidence to back up current ones and without any consultation with the fitness industry.”
“A few isolated incidents should not be representative of the entire industry. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work given the significant differences between how fitness studios in different categories operate,” said Mr. Kucharski, who represents 70 small gyms across the province.
In a statement, Michelle August, founder of Spinco, said the company followed all public health measures and added additional ones. She said none of the company’s 17 other studios have reported outbreaks, but the company will pause operations in “affected Ontario regions.”
“The recent positive cases at our Hamilton studio tell us that we must keep working, adapting and modifying our approach. While Spinco is certainly devastated that these cases have unfolded at one of our locations, we view this as part of our ongoing battle with a virus that is constantly changing, seemingly hourly,” she said.
Jacqueline Durlov, a spokeswoman for Hamilton Public Health Services, said the city agrees with Dr. Yaffe’s plan to review guidelines around fitness activities. The health authority is now suggesting that people consider wearing masks in fitness classes whenever they can, to not play music loudly or yell during the class, and to ensure that all public health measures are followed. She said people should not go to a class, or out at all, if they feel sick in any way, even with mild symptoms.
Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, called the Hamilton outbreak a “superspreader event” and said it can be a learning experience for both the province and fitness facilities that want to operate safely.
“I think it’s a very good example of needing to update our guidelines and learn from these sorts of events,” she said.
“Right now, we don’t have any rules around people wearing masks when they’re in gyms, and there’s not a recognition of the importance of ventilation in terms of preventing aerosol spread.”
Dr. Tuite said it is possible to operate gyms with the right precautions, such as wearing masks during the physical activity and having proper ventilation. She said turning down the volume on music can also help reduce transmission, so that people in the facility don’t have to shout to be heard.
“It may not be as fun, but if the alternative is shutting down the facilities, I think it’s a good compromise.”
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