The Cut: What’s It Like to Work Out in a Gym Right Now?

Jul 3, 2020 | style/mode

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images
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While public-health experts have changed their assessments about the transmission of coronavirus at a dizzying pace, there are a few factors that have stuck around as consistent high risks: (1) tightly-packed, (2) indoor spaces, with (3) circulated air that’s filled with the miasma of (4) people breathing hard. And if you alchemize these four high-risk factors, you get the gym, where people inhale each other’s exhales energetically.
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But starting last month, gyms began reopening across the land. The plans for gyms are as scattershot, obscurely “phase-oriented,” and geographically uneven as the plans have been for every other category of American life. In Utah, gyms opened in early May. In Texas, gyms opened in mid-May at 25 percent capacity and expanded capacity to 50 percent in early June. In Florida, gyms opened at half-capacity in mid-May, but the city of Miami held off until early June..
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As Connecticut entered phase two on June 17, gyms were given two options: Either members had to be kept 12 feet apart, or masks were required and everyone had to stay six feet apart. Gyms in Chicago open today (Friday, June 26) at half-capacity, though some gyms have been allowed to host outdoor classes since earlier this month. Gyms in Los Angeles opened the second week of June. Gyms in New York, however, won’t be opening for a while, even as the state moves into phase four.

To further complicate things, each individual gym institutes its own rules (or lack thereof), while still complying with state or city regulations. As far as I can tell from doctors and infectious-disease experts, the best practices for going to the gym if you must is to trust no one. Ensure that your facility has established generous barriers for social distances, like blocking off every few machines, or that your gym limits the number of attendees. Doctors note that some gym wipes won’t have strong enough disinfectant, so bring your own for any machines or equipment you use — and wait several seconds for the spray to sink in. For gear that’s especially tricky to clean (like kettlebells) bring ’em, if you’ve got ’em.

Regardless, people are back to sweating it out in public spaces. Here are ten dispatches from open gyms across the U.S. from Los Angeles to Atlanta; Portland, Maine, to Stratford, Connecticut.

“You can only workout inside with a $15 chaperone who wipes all the equipment when you’re done and makes sure you stay socially distant.”

I think my gym is one of the first to open in Chicago and may be the model gym for the city. Inside is super sparse and super clean. The classes outside are just picking up and maxing out at ten. People have to wear masks to walk through the gym but once they get to their workout area they can remove them. You can only workout inside for personal training or with a $15 [per hour] chaperone who wipes all the equipment when you’re done and makes sure you stay socially distant.
— Melissa, an instructor at Lakeshore Sport and Fitness, in Chicago, Illinois

“It’s honestly been busier than the first week of January.”

I couldn’t wait to go back to the gym. I love my abs and they almost packed their things and left during COVID. My LA Fitness is doing a really great job of sanitizing and offering sanitizer to all gymgoers. But it is PACKED. It’s honestly been busier than the first week of January. [Another gym chain] didn’t reopen its doors so we had an influx of sign-ups. I think with not all gyms being open, it’s causing ours to be much more crowded. There’s no limit [to the number of people allowed in the gym] as far as I know. People are ecstatic to be able to get their grind on again. Every time I’ve walked in, I instantly hear that viral spring breaker from Florida in my head going “if I get corona, I get corona” but that’s basically how it seems everyone feels.
— Gina, a group fitness instructor at LA Fitness in Orlando, Florida

“It’s a ghost town here.”

We have been open three days so far and it’s pretty dead here. No one wants to come back because everyone is still scared and apprehensive. Overall it’s a ghost town here. The few members who have come in seem happy and excited to be back. A rough estimate would be 20 per day. Everyone has been wearing masks and not causing a fuss. Our community is more understanding and caring of each other, compared to big box gyms. We even have some [masks] on hand if people forget to bring one. We encourage people to work out [on the gym’s patio space] outside. We cleaned all our air filters and have multiple air purifiers as well. We blast the AC and fans too. We don’t have any windows, just the front doors stay open.
— Dee, an assistant manager at Everybody Gym in Los Angeles, California

“All employees must wear a mask, but not clients.”

As soon as you check into the gym they will take your temperature and you put hand sanitizer on. People are taking the necessary precautions that they should’ve been taking before COVID-19. We also have keyless entry, you download the gym mobile app and we will scan your membership barcode through the app. It’s not as full as it used to be but it is gradually increasing. They do have a limit on how many can be in the class and in the gym. They just started the group classes. We don’t allow people to use the yoga mats that are provided at the gym, they must bring their own yoga mats. All employees must wear a mask, but not clients. A lot of people hate the masks. I don’t like them. It gets hot and gets hard to breathe if you are working out.— Tassia, a trainer at LA Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia

“There’s a hands-free scanner so it doesn’t require an employee to get close to take your temperature.”

Equinox has lots of reminders to keep physical distance and hand sanitizers everywhere. There’s a hands-free scanner [a touchless thermometer] connected to a tablet — it looks similar to a souped up iPad — so it doesn’t require an employee to get close to take your temperature. All employees are wearing masks. Members must wear them unless they’re actively working out, which makes sense, given that I get winded wearing a mask to go grocery shopping.
— Paul, a gymgoer at Equinox in Dallas, Texas

“There was an incident last week in which a woman was refusing to put on a mask.”

I also am an essential health-care worker, so I have had to take precautions this entire time and am quite used to spraying things down and cleaning my hands often! There was an incident last week in which a woman was refusing to put on a mask. The other patrons have been encouraged to speak up if they see something like that, or if someone appears sick. Management went and spoke with this woman and after a five-minute conversation they were able to get her to put a mask on. Our gym is pretty unique in that, although it’s busy, we all know one another quite well and look out for one another. That’s why I feel comfortable going there, even though the risk of COVID is still quite high.
— Emily, a gymgoer at the Edge Gym in Stratford, Connecticut

“[My gym] invested over $250,000 in new kinds of cleaning technology such as UV radiation.”

I work at a gym in Chicago teaching outdoor group fitness on the roof. I’m very strict about enforcing the rules and making sure people wear masks and stay at a distance. The rule of thumb is you must maintain social distance if unmasked. [My gym] invested over $250,000 in new kinds of cleaning technology such as UV radiation [disinfecting stations similar to what hospitals use]. Our classes have a ten person capacity and everyone must be spaced ten feet apart. The classes are selling out. It seems like people are excited to get back to the gym. But many of our members have left Chicago and are sheltering in various corners of the country or world with family or in second homes. I think they’re planning to come back but they don’t seem to be in any rush.
— Mikhaila, a group fitness teacher at Lakeshore Sport and Fitness, in Chicago

“It was like the first day of school.”

I’ve been going to two Equinox gyms in Miami since they reopened on June 8. I was there day one! It was like the first day of school. They sent out a long list of safety measures ahead of time, so I knew what to expect: Temperature check upon arrival and mask wearing when not working out. Once people are working out, probably less than 10 percent of people still wear masks. The rest, me included, tuck them away. [There’s] hand sanitizer and wipes throughout the club. Showers and lockers off limits. Amenities like towels and moisturizer are gone. Equipment is more spaced out. You need to reserve a workout time on the app. So far, I’ve had no problem getting a time I want. There are a fair number of people during the p.m. rush, but it’s definitely not crowded. I know they cut the capacity for each class. The mood is pretty positive. I’m guessing those that are nervous are staying home.
— Wayne, a gymgoer who attends two Equinoxes in Miami, Florida

“Some of it does feel performative.”

They lost a lot of people during the lockdown, but since restrictions have lifted I see a lot of new members and prior members coming back. Our gym is currently limiting class size to thirteen, most classes have been sold out and membership appears to be consistent to what it was prior to lockdown. The owner has sanitizer stations set up, equipment that sanitizes the floor after each class, and has taped off boxes on the floor [that show you] to stay in your own workout space. Everyone cleans equipment after each use. It’s as safe as can possibly be. Some of it does feel performative and it’s hard to know if we are doing the right thing, but the gym is going far and beyond to keep the space clean.
— Kelsey, a gymgoer in Portland, Maine

“People definitely are more appreciative of every moment spent in the gym.”

The mood is calm. Nobody is anxious, as the gym is a place where you get rid of stress and anxiety. As everybody knows, Miami is a city where everybody works out and puts emphasis on physical appearance. The space is very well-ventilated, even a little bit colder than usual. They opened on Monday, and Wednesday I was there already. I have a personal trainer that wears a mask constantly. We always wear masks, except the moment when I have to do some cardio. We disinfect every area before and after using it. Everybody is cautious and aware of the social distancing. People definitely are more appreciative of every moment spent in the gym. I think personally, I am more focused on my workout than ever.
— Gabrina, a gymgoer at Equinox in Miami, Florida

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity, and some names have been changed. 

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