Gyms and fitness centers across Pennsylvania are about to get the green light.

All but Lebanon County is out of the yellow phase and in the least-restrictive green phase, in which all businesses are allowed to reopen, with restrictions.

That means gyms and wellness facilities can open — though only at 50% occupancy.

In Philly, a slightly slower green phase means you’ll have to wait a little longer. August 1 is the expected date you’ll be able to return.

When gyms and fitness studios reopen, is it safe to go?

The answer is another risk-versus-benefit scenario, but most epidemiologists say they don’t plan to return anytime soon.

“Gyms are an area where we go to sweat, and we’re breathing heavily,” says Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University. “When you’re in close proximity to others who are doing the same thing, it can be a high-risk environment, and because people can be asymptomatic and presymptomatic, it’s personally too much of a risk for me.

In a New York Times survey of more than 500 epidemiologists, 42% said it’ll be three months to a year before they return, and 40% estimate it will be even longer than that.

The main problem with gyms? Other people.

Should I wear a mask at the gym?

Yes, but it’s not that easy.

It can be hard to socially distance in a space where you’re moving from machine to machine, and wearing a mask can be an even greater challenge. With a virus that’s primarily spread through respiratory droplets, you don’t want to be near people huffing and puffing. But wearing a mask while working out can also be problematic.

“Just walking around and going up a couple flights of stairs with a mask on is challenging,” says Dr. Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “It impacts your ability to breathe, so I don’t think it’d be very realistic to do a full workout with a mask on.”

The CDC recommends wearing masks when physical distancing is difficult and when exercise type and intensity allows. If you’re stretching or taking a walk around an indoor track, wear one. At some facilities, wearing a mask during your entire visit might be a requirement, like at Philly’s rock climbing gym The Cliffs, where you’ll also get a temperature check at arrival.

No matter the gym, it’s important that employees wear masks when you’re there, says Sachinwalla. This is already a requirement under Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan for staff at all businesses. In the green phase, there are a few extra guidelines issued for gyms, too. (Philly is expected to release its own guidelines soon.)

What gyms should do to lower your risk

Appointments are strongly encouraged for all indoor recreation and health and wellness facilities. At some gyms, they’ll be required, like City Fitness, where you’ll book a time slot (75 minutes) as you would a group fitness class. For those that don’t use a reservation system, don’t be surprised if you get turned away at the door. Capacity must be reduced to 50%.

And, like all other businesses, gyms have to follow social distancing and cleaning rules from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Some gyms are outlining their cleaning protocols on their websites. Many are changing their hours to allow for nightly deep cleanings, using medical-grade cleaning products, regularly disinfecting all equipment and high-touch surfaces throughout the day, and installing additional sanitizing stations.

Most gyms are rearranging their rooms to provide more space between equipment or blocking off certain machines. It’s all to help gym-goers with social distancing — dubbed “Social Fitnessing” by Planet Fitness.

Locker room use may also be limited. “Showers will be closed off initially — that’s partly for physical distancing, but partly so our staff can focus on elevated cleaning protocols elsewhere,” says Ali Stauffer, vice president of marketing for City Fitness.

Clear barriers may be put into place, especially in front desk and reception areas. You’ll also find some larger gym chains, like Planet Fitness, encouraging members to download smartphone apps that allow for a touchless check-in.

In Bryn Mawr, The Sporting Club Main Line has increased space between its cardio equipment to allow for social distancing when it eventually reopens.
Courtesy Sporting Club Main Line
In Bryn Mawr, The Sporting Club Main Line has increased space between its cardio equipment to allow for social distancing when it eventually reopens.

What you should do to lower your risk

Since the guidelines are relatively broad, you’d be smart to call your gym to ask about what new safety protocols they’re taking. If you have a gut feeling that they’re not doing enough, you may want to delay your return.

Ask questions like:

  • How is the 50% capacity requirement being enforced?
  • How often is equipment cleaned by staff?
  • Are wipes and sanitizer provided for members to use?
  • Is exercise equipment being spaced out, and how?
  • Will the windows be open? What does the ventilation system look like?
  • Are masks required for any activities or in any areas of the gym?

If you choose to return to the gym, understand your routine might look different. For starters, you may want to shorten your workout.

“The longer you’re there, the more risk you have,” says Sachinwalla. “If you have the ability to scale back, or mix things up by doing your cardio outside, stick to that.”

Wipe down machines before and after use, and remember the basics: regular handwashing and keeping six feet or more of distance away from others remain crucial.

“Sanitize your hands before you even get started,” says Johnson, who also encourages keeping at least two machines between you and the next person. “If you had to sign in, or just open the door, your hands could get contaminated.”

The CDC also points out that you should avoid items that can’t be easily disinfected between use, such as resistance bands and weightlifting belts. Some gyms may remove items, like foam rollers, with crevices that are hard to clean.

BYOBottle for water, and bring your own towel, too. Putting your face close to a communal water fountain increases your likelihood of coming into contact with something that’s contaminated. And without a towel, you’re more likely to wipe your face once you start sweating with potentially contaminated hands.

“Just be careful with the towel, you want to fold it so that the part that’s touching your face isn’t touching other surfaces,” says Johnson. “Unfold it to wipe your face, and then refold it before you put it back down.”

You’ll also want to skip the group fitness classes, experts say. Most group classes keep you in an enclosed room, for an hour or more, often without the best ventilation. This increases your risk, especially if no one’s wearing a mask. If you’re doing circuits where you’re sharing equipment, your risk goes up even more.

Cycling instructor Tom Hambrose (foreground) leads the 45 minute “Cycling with Tom” spin class in the parking lot at Royal Fitness in Barrington, N.J. on May 27, 2020. Gyms in New Jersey can hold outdoor classes, with restrictions, but indoor use has not been authorized yet.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Cycling instructor Tom Hambrose (foreground) leads the 45 minute “Cycling with Tom” spin class in the parking lot at Royal Fitness in Barrington, N.J. on May 27, 2020. Gyms in New Jersey can hold outdoor classes, with restrictions, but indoor use has not been authorized yet.

“If your gym has the ability to hold similar classes outdoors, where you can space out more, and there’s the ability for aerosol particles to be diffused more, it’s potentially safer,” says Sachinwalla.

Plenty of local studios are temporarily offering outdoor group classes, like Unite Fitness, Chestnut Hill Cycle Fitness, BPM Fitness, and Never Give Up Training. Check with your gym to see what your options are.

And again, if you can switch your entire workout outdoors, you might want to forgo the gym all together for the time being.

“There are ways to exercise that are safer than others — I’m not going back to my gym right now,” says Sachinwalla. “I know not everyone has equipment at home, and if weightlifting is what gets you moving, then understanding the risks and the mitigations strategies the gym is putting in place is an important starting place.”