Nick Prince, co-owner of QuickFit Health Club in Delacombe, questions why gyms remain closed in regional Australia.

As a business owner and operator of a health and fitness facility in Delacombe, many gym and fitness studio owners in an around Ballarat and their members are questioning why they remain closed when there has been zero COVID-19 cases in Ballarat and the case average in Regional Victoria is currently 0.3 as of 6 October 2020.

Gym users are primarily local residents (i.e. not tourist or travellers from Metropolitan Melbourne) and lessons learnt from the first wave ensured that gyms put in place COVID-19 safe plans to ensure members were kept safe whilst they exercised.

The second wave was a result of decisions made in managing hotel quarantine and not because of the way in which gyms and fitness facilities (and other businesses) were managed. Whilst environments that were contained, with poor airflow were considered to be higher risk of infections based on how the virus is dispersed and viability on surfaces, gyms, like many other businesses (and industry), were proactive in adapting and protecting their members and the community from the outset of the pandemic.

Whilst supermarkets, hardware shops, restaurants, hairdressers, beauty salons etc, remain open (or have since re-opened), the standards implemented at gyms surpass many of those implemented in these businesses, yet remain closed. Gym owners increased their expenditure to purchase appropriate cleaning equipment effective against coronaviruses (which coincidentally tripled or more in price!), modified their gym layouts to ensure safe distancing and set up hand hygiene and cleaning stations and protocols yet remain closed.

Although it is welcoming to see the re-opening of beauty salons and other services where there is close contact with customers that allow businesses to re-open, how do risks to COVID-19 compare in these environments to someone working out by themselves in a controlled space with a cap on numbers and monitored hygiene and cleaning protocols measure?

How does a group of people sitting in restaurant chatting (without masks) and eating for up to one hour with waiters moving from table to table in a comparatively small confined space with multiple use of the toilets be considered a lesser risk than a gym that is 200-300 square meters or more with high ceilings and only 20 people spread out working out on their own and cleaning between equipment use?

I know in discussion with members that many feel safer in a gym that has control on behaviours and hygiene protocols that are in place and visibly implemented than in a shopping mall or supermarket.

Gyms can adapt and if there is an evidence that there are increased risk due to increased breathing rates when using cardio machines like treadmills, then these could be turned off. Many gyms can still remain open and accessible to members keen to maintain their exercise routine without the use of cardio machines. Gyms are much more than for cardio workouts and our gym has a big focus on functional, resistance exercising and stretching. Exercise has countless benefits on improving physical and mental health outcomes which lessen the burden to the public health system and to the economy. An old saying, I remember was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” which can translate to addressing one health issue by incurring another (in this case there will be many health issues incurred or exacerbated).

A recent report suggested that exercise was an important part of reducing the onset of osteoporosis, slowing the progressive impact of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases. Exercise also has known benefits for those suffering from the effects of multiple sclerosis and arthritis where movement is essential. We have members at our gym with both neurological and diseases of the central nervous system where exercise has been prescribed by their physician. We also have veterans from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to the gym as part of managing the effects of post-traumatic stress.

Understanding how the virus spreads was instrumental in how gym owners re-oriented their gym to reduce the risk. Many went above and beyond what any Government advised on safety with some implementing COVID-19 safe plans that had been required in other States but not in Victoria. This was particularly important when a lessening of restrictions allowed gyms to reopen on 22 June 2020 after a 3-month temporary closure only to close again on 5 August 2020 (it was early July for Metropolitan Melbourne) following the re-emergence of the disease into the community by known failures in the hotel quarantine program.

Following the enquiry into the Hotel quarantine that concluded that there were significant breaches on infection prevention and control and lack of professional accountability that led to a second wave resulting in the resignation of the health minister, many feel that gyms and fitness facilities were closed not because it was deemed a risk to health but, due to the perceived errors made by the Government and the decisions made which then compromised many small and medium businesses that enjoy a face to face existence with their customers.

The perception is that State Government appear to put all gyms and fitness centres in to one box and continually claim that gyms were unsafe yet have not been able to provide evidence to Fitness Australia (Fitness Industry peak body) that infection was a result of transmission of coronavirus inside a well-run and infection control conscious gym. Not all gyms are the same!

Similarly, COVID-19 outbreaks did not occur in every aged care homes. Whilst susceptibility was high in part due to the ‘contained’ environment and higher vulnerability to severe illness due to underlying health issues and age, infection became widespread in some facilities due to poor risk management, poor standards, cost cutting and lack of foresight on risks when utilising workers across different facilities. It was determined that staff moving from one aged care facility to another were primarily the super spreaders as well as poor implementation and monitoring of infection prevention and control standards and protocols. Like gyms, aged care homes are not all the same and much depends on their standards of care and operation (and their owners!). Did all aged care home businesses close? No, as not all aged care homes are the same!

Gyms are local member based which requires members to tag or ‘sign in’ and are used by locals (i.e. not travellers that might use a gym in a hotel or sporting club). Gyms have the contact details of members and know who is in the gym at any one time due to its entry management system (in our case Gymmaster). Many gyms also have 24hr CCTV and increased their staff presence hours allowing owners/managers to observe behaviours and take actions if necessary. In fact, our gym and many local gyms, their members were very proactive in adhering to COVID-19 prevention measures and dutifully wiped down equipment before and after use.

A big credit here should go to the people of Ballarat and Regional Victoria as a whole who have done the hard work and made sacrifices to keep our community safe. As well as touch free sanitizers, gyms have washrooms, disinfectant wipes, safe distance and hygiene signage and staff were required to complete the Government infection control training course. I am sure this standard is adopted in many small to medium owner operated gyms and studios.

Having a member only rule and access controlled with ‘electronic fobs/swipes’ enabled gyms to ensure they had necessary information for any contact tracing requirements. Communication about the COVID-19 safe measures and requirements was sent to all members and entry in the gym reminded members of their obligations.

Gyms invested heavily in protecting their members by installing sanitizers (often at inflated costs due to demand), spacing equipment by at least 1.5 meters and signage on COVID-19 safe measures. Numbers were capped so that only 20 persons could be in the gym at one time (less for smaller gyms). Group classes and exercise activities that caused members or personal trainers to be closer than 1.5 meters (such as boxing) were suspended. Members (and staff) were also required to wear masks just before the second closure which they were happy to do. Gyms offered those who were vulnerable or preferred not to come to the gym a suspension of their membership at no cost to the member.

As a result of the decisions made in managing hotel quarantine and lack of foresight on public health risks in infectious disease management, local gyms and those providing health and fitness services have suffered both emotionally and financially. For some, the road to recovery will be long and hard and re-building community confidence will take time.

Some gyms may even have to call it a day due to financial hardship which will also impact on their members who have built up a close and trusting relationship with the gym and their personal trainers, many of whom chose a gym based on it values of inclusiveness and creating a trusting, confidential and non-intimidating safe space to exercise.

Members who use the gym to maintain and improve their physical and mental health have also suffered greatly. As a result, there is likely to be an increase in non-communicable diseases due to increased sedentary lifestyles and increased mental health issues resulting from the effects of isolation, uncertainty and lack of exercise.

Australia (particularly in regional Australia) has one of the highest rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease per capita in the world. Type 2 diabetes is also a growing public health concern. The secondary impacts on health as a result of COVID-19 and the pain and emotional toll many have endured to bring the case numbers down due to fundamental errors in risk management planning when we were at a stage of suppressing the virus to manageable levels back in June 2020 will be huge.

For many, the gym is a place not only to exercise and improve fitness and health outcomes but a place to have ‘time out and ‘me’ time’ especially for busy mums and dads and those that may have some challenges in the home or work environment.

Whilst the Government is considered by many to be doing a good job as a result of the second wave, it is felt that the job at hand is a result of many errors made by the decision makers and not industry that were the first to implement COVID-19 safety measures. Many gyms and fitness clubs surpass the required standard of hygiene and, as a business, they want to ensure that facilities meet the standards expected by their paying members.

Although it is welcoming to see the re-opening of beauty salons and other services where there is close contact with customers that allow

Even when asked, the Government and their departments (at least in Victoria) have not as of today come forward to suggest to gyms or fitness facilities on what needs to be done to meet expectations and provide a COVID-19 safe environment. Whilst the immediate risks to COVID-19 must be addressed, there is little perceived attention to the social and economic welfare of the community and secondary health impacts caused by lockdowns.

Whilst acknowledging the seriousness of COVID-19 (particularly on the vulnerable and the emotional trauma to their families and loved ones) the evidence that required gyms that had already maintained a COVID-19 safe environment to close is just not there.

Like many other gym owners, I am confident that gyms can still operate safely and provide a much needed service that, on the longer term, reduces the burden on the public health service, improves quality of life and helps address anxiety and stress caused by lockdowns and uncertainly whilst at the same time protect those most vulnerable.

Nick Prince
Co-Owner QuickFit Health Club, Delacombe