A petition with nearly 50,000 signatures is demanding the B.C. government not only reopen indoor exercise facilities but show the public just how much transmission occurs in those environments.
Launched last month, the petition argues the vast majority of gyms and fitness centres haven’t experienced any cases of transmission or significant outbreaks over the past two years. It also requests a meeting with provincial public health officials so that they can “understand the operating context of all gyms (small and large alike) and the role they play” in helping British Columbians stay healthy and happy.
Samantha and Anthony Agtarap, owners of Engineered Bodies Strength & Conditioning in Port Moody, created the petition and say they are beyond frustrated at the lack of transparency from the provincial government.
“We feel like the PHO and the Ministry of Health has not really been very transparent with data. The way that data is reported here is a lot more opaque than other provinces,” said Samantha. “We really just want to see the data that supports their decision-making process.”
Gyms, fitness centres, dance and yoga studios, other indoor exercise facilities, along with bars and nightclubs are under orders to remain closed until at least Jan. 18 — a period when many people sign up for memberships — as part of new restrictions introduced in B.C. on Dec. 21.
The announcement did not include capacity limits on retail stores or require the immediate shut down of food courts within shopping malls — places where maskless unvaccinated individuals can freely enter — as had been done in earlier phases of the pandemic.
“All the malls are completely packed. The food courts are completely packed and yet gyms are vilified. It’s very frustrating,” said Anthony.
It’s unclear exactly how much transmission occurs inside gyms and fitness centres compared to other public settings in B.C. because the provincial government either does not capture that data or make it available to the public.
Reports in the United States early on in the pandemic found that indoor gyms and fitness centres were places where higher levels of transmission can occur, largely due to a lack of masking, proper distancing and poor ventilation.
According to one report on the U.S. Center for Disease Controls (CDC) website, an outbreak at a gym in Chicago resulted in 55 of 81 attendees of in-person classes held between Aug. 24 and Sept. 1, 2020, becoming infected. The report, which noted that the majority of attendees didn’t wear a mask during the class or classes, recommended the use of masks at indoor fitness centres.
“The increased respiratory exertion that occurs in the enclosed spaces of indoor exercise facilities facilitates transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in these settings,” the report states. “To reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in exercise facilities, employees and patrons should wear a mask, even during high-intensity activities when [equal to or greater than] 6 ft apart.”
A second CDC report notes that a fitness instructor in Hawaii in 2020 inadvertently infected more than 20 individuals after teaching two separate classes on two different days before the onset of symptoms. That report also notes that while the instructor did wear a mask during one class but didn’t during the second class and that both classes took place indoors.
Locally, there have been exposure events and cases linked to fitness facilities — though the number of events or infections that can be directly linked to these facilities remains unknown.
However, one case at a fitness studio on the Lower Mainland in October 2020 resulted in more than 100 people becoming infected and six school exposures and three hospitalizations, according to an infographic posted on Fraser Health’s website. Notably, masks were not required to be worn inside those facilities at that time, as there was no province-wide mandate. A Langford gym was ordered to close by Island Health in 2021 after multiple infected individuals attended the facility.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s top doctor, said during a press conference on Christmas Eve that with the Omicron variant circulating throughout the community, the coronavirus is transmitting “quickly” inside indoor exercise facilities.
“What we are seeing is that this is passing so quickly in those indoor environments, even when we have lots of space and when we have been doing everything right,” said Henry, without providing any data to support her statement.
But that isn’t good enough for the Agtaraps, who want B.C. to prove it by releasing transmission data publicly. The couple has also gone a step further and submitted numerous Freedom of Information requests to multiple health authorities and the provincial government seeking that very data.
“Show us the data. That’s all we really want,” said Anthony. “Not only are gym owners demanding to see this information, the public is too. That’s why our petition has almost 50,000 signatures, it just shows public support for how non-transparent the government is being. We’re just demanding accountability from the government and we are going to continue to advocate for that.”
Sudden close of fitness centres ‘unacceptable’ to owners
Gyms and fitness centres are among the hardest-hit businesses throughout COVID-19, having been forced to shut down completely for weeks in the early phase of the pandemic. They were allowed to reopen in May 2020 and have operated under tougher restrictions and stricter health and safety guidelines than many other businesses — at one time they were required to operate at reduced capacity.
Samantha says prior to the latest shut down many of the safety measures remained in place, including wellness checks, mask requirements, physical distancing, regular cleaning and have even installed an air filtration system.
“I believe we have more protections in place than a classroom,” she said. “We have not had any exposure events in our gym and speaking to the other [gym owners], nobody else has either.”
Back on Dec. 14, B.C. health officials presented modelling data showing a massive spike in infections due to the Omicron variant but chose not to introduce any new measures or restrictions. At the time, Henry, when asked whether British Columbians could expect additional measures to be introduced in the coming days, told reporters “fairly strong” restrictions were already in place.
One week later, after already imposing restrictions that placed limits on the size of indoor personal gatherings and capped audience numbers in large venue, officials ordered indoor fitness facilities to close.
“We know that these, unfortunately, have been places where transmission events have happened and have spread out to people in the community,” Henry said during the Dec. 21 announcement.
For the Agtaraps, the province’s lack of consultation and rationale for its recent decisions is frustrating.
“It’s unacceptable,” said Samantha. “It’s always at the last minute.”
“As a business owner, this is our only source of income and a few days before Christmas, you’re told to shut down,” said Anthony. “That’s not acceptable, especially without data.”
CHEK News requested data from the Ministry of Health on the number of people who became infected with COVID-19 as a direct result of transmission occurring at a handful of settings including gyms, fitness centres, movie theatres, Vancouver Canucks games, restaurants, bars and nightclubs but was told it wasn’t possible.
“We aren’t able to provide this type of breakdown. However, risk of transmission in these settings, and what contributes to it, has been routinely discussed during media briefings,” the ministry’s said in a statement.
The reason B.C. opted to require fitness facilities to either close or move online was that the government wanted to “slow down rapidly increasing case numbers” by reducing social interaction at various settings, according to a separate statement from the Ministry of Health.
“The rationale is that we wanted to reduce social interaction in venues in which COVID-19 could spread, such as food and liquor serving premises, but also recognized that eating is necessary, so allowed those places that serve food to stay open.”
As for whether fitness facilities will remain closed beyond Jan. 18 is unknown.
“The PHO is continually reviewing the COVID-19 situation, will be consulting on measures that may be needed to further deal with Omicron and will be making decisions about what is needed in the coming days,” the health ministry said in its statement.