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Karume Mrusha works out at Hone Fitness in Toronto on July 31, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

It’s a problem I’m glad someone else is responsible for solving – how exactly do you protect people from a mysterious and deadly airborne virus without ruining the economy and stomping all over civil liberties? This is the COVID-19 conundrum in a nutshell.

When the Ontario government announced renewed lockdown restrictions for Toronto, Ottawa and Peel regions at the beginning of October, gyms were placed front and centre in the firing line. All indoor fitness facilities – along with casinos, cinemas, performing-arts venues and indoor dining establishments – were ordered closed by the Premier’s office until at least early November, a desperate attempt by officials to quell the rising case numbers in the province after a quiet and hopeful summer.

Not five minutes after this announcement was made, my Instagram feed began to look something like a libertarian activist forum. Most of the grumbling came from gym owners who were upset about the prospect of losing another month’s business. Then came the armchair virologists whose amateur opinions amount to a “survival of the fittest” argument.

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My scope of practice as a personal trainer excludes me from making any statements on COVID-19 outside of what medical experts are already saying, but I do want to address, from an insider’s perspective, the issue of gyms being shuttered.

Why gyms should be included in the lockdown

By now you’ve likely heard about the Hamilton-based spin studio that’s at the centre of a massive COVID-19 outbreak. Eighty cases have so far been linked to SpinCo, although it’s feared this number could easily reach 100. It’s believed that “patient zero” was asymptomatic, a common and insidious feature of COVID-19 infections.

This case presents an obvious and important question: How can businesses in which groups of people gather together under one roof operate safely when basic screening measures are essentially useless?

The answer is just as obvious. They can’t. According to SpinCo staff, class capacity was cut by 50 per cent, from 43 riders to 21, and each bike was buffered by a six-foot radius. The problem is the very nature of the activity members are paying to participate in. Picture a spin class in action (this thought experiment works just as well if you substitute a kettlebell class, kickboxing or any HIIT-style class). The exertion level is high. Lots of heavy breathing. Lots of spit and sweat, lots of speaking moistly. Distancing protocols mean nothing in these environments.

It’s a tough spot for fitness businesses to be in, and my heart goes out to all gym owners struggling to stay afloat. Take your classes outside while you still can, apply for federal relief if you qualify and ride out the storm with the rest of the world.

#notallgyms

There’s a common misconception among people who don’t exercise that all exercise is the same, that a gym is a gym is a gym. This is like saying all restaurants are the same, or that a private shopping experience is the same as a rummage sale at an outlet mall.

I work with most of my clients in a 725-square-foot private studio. Since COVID-19 hit, strict protocols have been put in place to protect everyone involved. I wear a mask (same with the other trainers who rent this space), but still I keep my distance as much as possible.

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Everyone who enters this studio must sanitize their hands at the door, take their temperature and fill out a contact-tracing form. Trainers have been given an extra 15 minutes between sessions to sterilize equipment. The owner has even installed an UV air-purifying system. I wager this space is among the safest spots in the whole city of Toronto.

Then there’s the nature of the exercise itself to consider. My workouts focus mostly on mobility, bodyweight exercises and some basic barbell lifts. My clients work hard, but it’s a far different experience from circuit-training sweat factories.

All of this is to say it’s ridiculous and myopic to blanket every single fitness facility with the same restrictions. As my friend and fellow trainer Geoff Girvitz said, speaking to The Canadian Press last week, "... it would be really helpful to have protocols based on density and airflow rather than an arbitrary number of people allowed in the space.”

While campaigning for election as premier of Ontario back in 2018, Doug Ford waved high the populist banner, promising to “make Ontario ‘Open for Business.'” Granted, back then no one could have foreseen a worldwide pandemic coming along to grind the economy to a halt, but still there is some rich irony in the self-appointed champion of entrepreneurs and everyday taxpayers being at the helm of this sinking ship.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.

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