The outset of the coronavirus pandemic presented us with no shortage of cruel ironies, but perhaps none was as bewildering as our sudden avoidance of gyms and studios for, of all things, health reasons. Gone were the days when skipping a workout session just meant you overslept your alarm or were “overserved” the night before. With panting patrons in tight quarters, spaces designed to boost our fitness and immune systems now seemed like potential virus hotbeds. The state agreed: Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order shut them down entirely until Phase 2.
But we are, indeed, in Phase 2 here in Seattle, which means you can currently frequent local gyms and attend classes at studios, even if scientific research on their safety is still lacking. Large facilities (over 12,000 square feet) can operate at 25 percent of normal occupancy, and smaller facilities can offer group fitness classes with at least five people, adding an additional participant for every 300 square feet of distance they can guarantee. In Phase 3, the minimum class size jumps to 10.
You can be forgiven for not knowing this. The state’s Safe Start recovery guidelines for fitness centers have entailed more twists and tweaks than a vinyasa session. Initially, Washington only allowed indoor fitness classes of no more than five people, regardless of facility size, with a mandate of six feet of distance between these participants. But on August 3, governor Jay Inslee’s office signed off on a new standard—300 square feet of distance around each workout warrior. That's roughly 17 feet in each direction.
For sprawling facilities, this change boosted their capacities amid the pandemic. Yet, for many small studios, the stricter social distancing requirement made it impossible to squeeze even five participants into their spaces. “It just forced a lot more studios to shut down,” says Shiva Hippely, the owner of Pure Barre studios in Capitol Hill and Queen Anne.
Hippely was perplexed. Without significant data or research, why should gyms be held to different standards than restaurants and other spaces? Others in the fitness industry aired similar complaints, backing a petition that quickly gathered more than 17,000 virtual signatures. The governor’s office heard their grievances and, on August 26, announced a new policy that reinstated the six-foot rule and solidified the minimum class size at five.
It's not a return to normal. Listening to Hippely recite Pure Barre’s safety protocols, for instance, is flat-out exhausting. Before signing up for classes, participants must confirm that they haven’t experienced any Covid-19 symptoms of late or crossed paths with someone who’s tested positive. Prior to entering the studio, they must wear masks and agree to a temperature-check. Shoes get shed in a designated station. They place the rest of their belongings in a plastic bin inside their own “station”; dressing rooms and cubbies are off-limits for now. After class, participants put their masks back on (if they ever took them off) and wipe down all of their equipment. Studio staffers then apply carpet cleaner and disinfectants to every surface during the 30 minutes between classes.
Should you ditch your streaming regimen, your in-real-life gym routine may include masks and shields and floor tape directing you where to go. And like any activity right now, gym and studio sessions aren't without some level of risk. But the rewards might be worth it too. Some Pure Barre members who had frozen their accounts at the beginning of the pandemic have returned, according to Hippely, because virtual classes simply can’t simulate the social and motivational jolt that in-person classes provide. “This is people's space that they need,” says Hippely. “I've had so many clients who just told me that we're the reason that they're getting through this—like, their mental health is at stake.”