Health officials are working out the details of the next reopening phase, which could see gym-goers allowed to exercise without masks as early as this week — a prospect that both thrills and unnerves fitness facility owners.
Dr. Brent Roussin unveiled last week a list of potential reopening measures for March 6; among them is fitness centres being able to open for individual workouts and group classes at 25 per cent capacity and workout sessions sans face coverings.
Centres can only offer one-on-one sessions, as long as both individuals are masked, at present.
With revenues down 50 per cent compared to this time last year at Blue Sky Fitness, personal trainer Kathryn Dzikowicz said the latest reopening announcement came as a pleasant surprise.
Dzikowicz, who owns the boutique studio on St. Anne’s Road, said she and her patrons are desperate for some sense of normalcy and human interaction in their workout routines to bolster motivation. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the studio has been primarily offering virtual classes.
"When you’re doing a lot of burpees and mountain climbers, it’s challenging to breathe properly (with a mask on)," she said, adding that if masks are required during high-intensity classes, it’s unlikely people will want to work out in person with wet masks.
Stephanie Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Fitness Council, said many facilities have indicated they won’t be able to operate with a mask mandate. At the same time, Jeffrey said the council is worried about whether it’s the right time to make face coverings optional during workouts.
Roussin floated the possibility just one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a strict recommendation fitness centres in the U.S. enforce "consistent and correct mask use," even during high-intensity activities, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
"We’re just really hoping that gyms stay open and do not close again. We’ve had a lot of people who’ve communicated to us that their health has taken a turn for the worse, that they’ve had a lot of weight gain or a lot of injuries, as a result (of gym closures)," said Jeffrey.
The council’s priorities are increasing capacity and permitting group classes. Staff and patron safety is key, she added, noting recent research about mask-use in the U.S.
The CDC reports published last week on the spread of COVID-19 during high-intensity exercise classes in Chicago and Honolulu concluded infrequent mask use and heavy breathing in the confined indoor spaces increased transmission risks in both situations.
The authors prescribe mask use, physical distancing, improved ventilation and obeying stay-at-home orders when sick, in addition to outdoor and virtual exercise.
"The concept of being indoors without a mask on for at least an hour goes against everything we’ve said about (COVID-19 risks associated with) duration, proximity, and indoor air space," said Cynthia Carr, founder of Winnipeg-based EPI Research Inc.
Carr said, however, research is varied on how safe it is to do a high-intensity workout with a wet face covering on.
Stuart Klassen, owner of Winnipeg-based Morfit facilities, said he’s in favour of giving Manitobans autonomy to make decisions based on their own comfort and risk levels.
"Whatever degree of freedom the government gives back to our members, we will pass those freedoms on to our members without question," said Klassen.
If masks are made optional in group classes, the executive director of the fitness council said gym-goers would have a designated space for their workout, water bottle and mask and once finished, would need to put their mask on.
"We all want to get back to a normal where we can go into our favourite business and not wear a mask," said Jeffrey.
"It’ll just be interesting to see what the feedback is from Manitobans with regards to this."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.