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Reducing Covid transmission while reopening gyms

When the total lockdown began to be eased, the Central and State Governments began to issue guidelines on how various facilities could be allowed to reopen, and the SOPs they had to follow once they did. While malls, schools, colleges, hotels and more began to cautiously resume operations, gyms continued to remain shut.
It was only in August 2020 that the Central Government permitted gyms to open doors to fitness enthusiasts once again, albeit with many restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW). Many states deferred reopening gyms until October or November, which means many gyms across India have been functioning since just 3-4 months back, and are still taking baby steps towards normalcy.
What are the Covid safety concerns in reopening gyms? What are the latest guidelines, and how have gym owners and managers adapted to them? How has the experience of using a gym changed from the user’s point of view, and most importantly, how is the cleaning process different from pre-pandemic times? Mrigank Warrier, Assistant Editor, Clean India Journal features the views of housekeepers maintaining in-house gyms of hotels as well as the manager of a reputed standalone gym in this deep-dive.

Covid transmission concern in gyms

Pre-pandemic, a typical gym had a wide range of fixed and movable equipment and machines, all of which were placed in close proximity to one another. Hence, gym users would often end up working out very close to each other, which is no longer permissible in the era of physical distancing.

We now know that the virus is spread primarily through coughing or talking loudly by infected individuals, especially those not wearing a mask. However, a lesser known method of transmission is heavy breathing, which is to be expected in those who exercise. Since most gyms are enclosed spaces, the risk is only multiplied.

Almost every piece of equipment in a gym is used by a number of users in the course of a day, often immediately after the previous user has finished with it. Hence, the number of high-touch surfaces in a gym is much more than that at an average facility.

Planning and adapting to the new normal

The MoHFW guidelines say:

  • Plan gym floor area based on 4 sq metres per person.
  • Place equipments, including cardio and strength machines, 6 feet apart wherever feasible, by moving equipment to facilitate social distancing.
  • Where available, utilize any outdoor space by relocating equipment outside.
  • For air-conditioning/ventilation, temperature setting of air-conditioning devices should be in the range of 24-30 °C, relative humidity should be in the range of 40-70%, intake of fresh air should be as much as possible and cross ventilation should be adequate.

According to Kuldeep Singh Gariya, Deputy Housekeeper, The Fern Residency – Morbi, “The location of the gym can also be changed to a place where instead of air-conditioning, fresh air can be utilized. We have made special arrangements for moveable fans and dry air coolers to avoid central AC systems.”

Some gyms have placed clear plastic barriers between equipment such as treadmills. And in case equipment cannot be placed sufficiently apart, only alternately placed machines are allowed to be used to maintain distancing.

According to the initial guidelines, wet areas such as saunas, spas and steam showers cannot be used. However, at the time of writing, the Central Government has just permitted these to reopen.

“After each usage, we need to keep the gym empty by not allowing anyone to use it for a minimum of half an hour, before the next user.”

Kuldeep Singh Gariya

Regulating entry

Apart from keeping vulnerable groups at bay, it is critical to avoid overcrowding on the gym floor. “Rights of admission are reserved with the gym trainer and support staff to avoid crowding at any place”, said Gariya. This can be done by:

  • Implementing ‘fitness sessions’ for particular exercise areas with requirements for members to register (ideally online) for specific sessions. For example, the gym can be divided into areas with equipment for arm, leg, chest, back and abdominal workouts, and only a certain number of individuals can be allowed to occupy each area at any given time.
  • Lockers can remain in use, as long as social distancing is maintained. This can be implemented such that every other locker (in a staggered arrangement with the lockers opposite) is kept locked.

At his facility, Ranit Chakrabarti, Rooms Division Manager – Executive Housekeeper and Chief Hygiene Officer, Caravela Beach Resort, Goa said “Gym usage is not free to use but is pre-booked on a time-slot basis. Every person is allotted a maximum of one hour. At any given time, two people from a family or the same group are allowed to use the gym, or else just one guest at a time.”

“After each usage, we need to keep the gym empty by not allowing anyone to use it for a minimum of half an hour, before the next user.”

Ranit Chakrabarti

Protocol while exercising

  • Hand sanitizer stations must be provided near each equipment.
  • Individuals must maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet as far as feasible.
  • Use of face covers/masks is mandatory at all times, according to the MoHFW. However, exercising with an N95 mask on can be very strenuous, and even potentially dangerous. Hence, a visor, or a simple cotton mask will do.

“Wearing a mask while exercising is a challenge”, said Sunitta Pawar, General Manager – Waves Gym. “The USP at Waves Gym is our 1500 sq ft open-air exercise terrace area where members can exercise safely, maintaining a three metre social distancing protocol.”

The uncertain position of personal trainers

Serious gymmers will need the assistance of trainers to help them train. But when people are expected to remain at least six feet away from one another, how can a trainer support a gymmer while he or she is lifting weights?

Guidelines instruct gyms to “Ensure that sessions are tailored to include only those exercises that do not require physical contact between the trainer and the clients, including setup and use of equipment”, but this is wishful thinking. At the most, a trainer can limit the number of clients he or she works with per session, and ensure adequate spacing amongst all clients.

Cleaning and disinfection of gyms

Said Pawar, “We’ve adopted a whole new method of cleaning and sanitizing. It starts with the procurement of industry-leading cleaning supplies. We have acquired automatic hand sanitizer machines, sanitizer sprinkler machine for floor sanitizing, and rapid surface equipment disinfectant for machine cleaning. New SOPs are in place with enhanced floor cleaning and washroom sanitization. The AC filters are regularly checked. Every piece of equipment in our gym is sanitized before and after use. The sanitization is done by gym members and also our housekeeping staff. We’ve equipped the gym with sanitization sprays and wipes that are readily available to clean all high-touch surfaces regularly. Our regular cleaning protocol ensures no cross-contamination.”

According to the guidelines, apart from all of the above, floor cleaning shall be taken up between exercise sessions, deep cleaning of all washrooms shall be ensured, and before closure, the entire premises will be disinfected.

We are disinfecting the gym twice daily without any members being present in our daily SOP. We’ve allocated two operational hours for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection.”

Sunitta Pawar

Gariya’s property follows the following steps:

  • Dry wipe of the area and touchpoints and discarding the duster used.
  • Use of alcohol-based disinfectant to sanitize the areas and touchpoints.
  • Sweeping and mopping the floor with disinfectant. Any rubber mat used needs to be sent for cleaning with various chemicals.
  • Once cleaning is done, allowing the area to breathe and not allowing people to enter for some time.

The final impact of Covid on gyms

Chakrabarti said, “The challenge is in making people understand when and how to use the gym, because after each usage, we need to keep the gym empty by not allowing anyone to use it for a minimum of half an hour, before the next user.”

Reopening gyms after the lockdown has required a changed approach to the entire business model. Gyms have installed equipment and protocols that include temperature scans, blood oxygen level checks, hand sanitizers dispensers, and in the case of Pawar’s gym, mandatory closure in the mid-afternoon for additional cleaning and sanitization. “We are disinfecting the gym twice daily without any members being present in our daily SOP”, she said. “We’ve allocated two operational hours for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection. All these new procedures have added costs and the reduced capacity due to social distancing requirements has made the business very challenging. This has been the most challenging period in our 17 years of being operational.”

While times will continue to remain tough for gyms for at least a while longer, a study from Norway has shown that provided gym users and managers follow all Covid protocols, reopening and patronising gyms does not contribute to a spike in Covid cases. Gym managers will have to be vigilant and stringent in implementing all precautions to regain the trust of the public as well as of the authorities, because after all, physical fitness is one of the strongest defences against the coronavirus.

Rights of admission are reserved with the gym trainer and support staff to avoid crowding at any place”

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