Gyms in Wuhan–the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak–were swiftly turned into makeshift hospitals as Chinese officials tried to cope with the outbreak. In other parts of China, group fitness studios and weight rooms sit empty by mandate or choice as gym goers fear the spread of the disease.
Like schools and places of worship, fitness facilities have been temporarily shuttered around the globe in response to the spread of the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19.
It’s all in an attempt to halt community spread, meaning an illness with an unknown source of infection. The CDC confirmed last week that has already happened in the U.S. in a case in Santa Clara, California.
“In cities that have been hit hard, I think it’s a prudent decision,” Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University and infectious disease expert, told Men’s Health. “It makes sense to close public places—at least for a brief period of time—where you have a lot of people congregating and sharing space to stem the transmission of the virus.”
More than 80,000 people in 53 countries have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly 3,000 people have died as a result of the coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization. The virus can be spread via small droplets excreted by an infected person (usually by a cough or sneeze) that are breathed in by somebody a few feet away. It is also believed that the virus could be viable on surfaces for several hours.
“If you touch the surface that has a virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you basically inoculate yourself with the virus,” Smith said. “That’s where hand washing comes in. That’ll eliminate that source of transmission.”
It’s been more than a decade since the last pandemic hit North America. H1N1, also known as the swine flu, led to the shutdown of gyms in Mexico City near where the outbreak originated. Disruptions to life in the U.S. was minimal despite an estimated 60.8 million cases per CDC statistics. That’s because while H1N1, an influenza virus, was easily spread, there were 12,469 deaths in the U.S. (0.20 percent of infected individuals), a rate far below seasonal flus (around 1 percent).
The death rate via very preliminary estimates for the coronavirus is 2 percent.
Anne M. Mahlum, owner and CEO of D.C.-based Solidcore, a chain that is approaching 100 group fitness studios nationwide, said she’s watching the reports of the coronavirus closely and has been in contact with other national chains to develop a plan if the pandemic takes hold in the U.S.
“We are being as proactive as possible,” Mahlum said.
Mahlum said it’s “hard to hypothesize” exactly how Solidcore will react if the virus becomes widespread, although she added studio closures could happen—at least on a regionalized basis.
“We may see studios in New York close and it could be business as usual for our locations in North Dakota,” Mahlum said. “We will take action and work with every studio to make sure we take necessary precautions on top of what we already do when it comes down wiping down equipment and encouraging our employees and members wash their hands.”
Mahlum said gym owners are largely reliant on direction from local and federal public health officials for direction, a sentiment echoed by Gold’s Gym President & CEO Adam Zeitsiff.
“In light of the current health concerns we are stepping up those efforts in each of our gyms and we will continue to watch the situation very closely,” Zeitsiff said in a statement to Men’s Health. “Should it worsen, we will take direction from public health officials and take whatever actions are required in order protect our members, our team members and the general public.”
What You Can Do About Coronavirus at the Gym
There’s good news: The steps taken by mindful gym goers and the sanitation practices at most responsible gyms and group fitness facilities are effective in stemming the transmission of the coronavirus.
“Cleaning gym equipment or other high touch areas, such as doors and door handles, etc. would be beneficial, which I hope gyms would be doing anyways regardless of the threat of coronavirus,” said Emi Minejima, an assistant professor and infectious disease researcher at the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy. “Especially as this is flu season, gym members should be washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water—or alcohol gel if soap and water is not available. Also, avoid touching your face with uncleansed hands. And if you are feeling unwell, it’s best to stay home to rest and prevent infecting others in your community.”
Life Time, a gym chain with more than 150 locations in the U.S. and Canada, said in a statement that its existing protocols “have been found to be effective against viruses of this type, including coronavirus.”
“We fully recognize the difficulty in ensuring all surfaces are free of any virus, and cannot control everything, but we will work tirelessly to do what we can as an organization,” Life Time’s statement read.
Smith, the Kent State University professor, said sweat alone typically doesn’t lead to the transmission of dangerous viruses and bacterial infections, but can help sustain pathogens.
“Some of them can live up 96 hours on surfaces and that’s why you want wipe up sweat,” Smith said. “They die a lot faster when they dry out.”
Smith typically works out at Planet Fitness, but she has treadmill at home she’ll use if the pandemic forces her gym to close. The potential that more people will work out from home is one reason analysts said why Peloton—known for its stationary bike and streamed spinning classes—has seen its stock rise over last week as the rest of the market has been down sharply over coronavirus fears.
“With new COVID-19 hotspots in South Korea, Italy and Iran, we believe certain U.S. consumers will be less comfortable over time going to their gym and more likely to order a Peloton bike to stay home,” Laura Martin, an analyst at the investment bank Needham & Company, wrote in a note to clients on Thursday. “This may drive higher unit sales and subscription revenue in 2020 than are currently in our estimates.”