Fitness Classes Are All But Banned in D.C. Over Baseless COVID-19 Fears

For many Americans, fitness studios are an important part of an active and healthy lifestyle, one that helps them remain resilient against infections, including COVID-19 and that has been linked to few if any outbreaks.

Closing them down seems to have real downsides and little discernible benefit in terms of COVID-19 numbers.

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Even so, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recently issued an order that banned indoor fitness classes and reduced the limit on outdoor classes to 25 people, down from 50. The order came as a shock to owners of fitness studios, who have been complying with health guidance and orders for months.

It’s another example of government shutting down businesses, harming citizens, and imposing economic harm without any scientific evidence that these actions keep residents safe or limit the spread of the virus.

Most would agree with the ban if government at least had clear and persuasive proof that fitness studios are hot spots for transmission of COVID-19 before. But the D.C. Health Department released new outbreak hot-spot data just a few days ago—and gyms and fitness studios are not even listed.

Yet, the mayor’s restrictions mean many studios in the District have been forced to close and lay off employees, adding to the economic stress our country is under and contributing to the 10.7 million people unemployed in the U.S.

One fitness studio chain native to DC, [solidcore], practiced civil disobedience and stayed open, as it had after previous lockdown orders. Owner Anne Mahlum published a letter to Bowser, asking her to reconsider the order as it was not based on COVID-19 transmission data.

“Disallowing group fitness won’t change the COVID numbers for one simple reason: There has been zero instances of community spreading at [solidcore], or any other boutique fitness environment of which I am aware,” she wrote.

David Magida, owner of Elevate Interval Fitness, agreed. “I understand what the city was attempting to do. They were attempting to deal with bad optics and an assumed source of spread … but the only thing they accomplished was effectively hurting small fitness studios without actually increasing safety.”

Other studios took an “adapt or die” approach and chose to dramatically alter their business models and products. Orangetheory Fitness, a global chain with 12 locations in the District, changed its workouts from instructor-led classes to an “open gym” format to comply with the order.

Studio owners and employees were blindsided. Many said they had worked tirelessly to keep customers healthy by enforcing social distancing, sanitizing equipment, eliminating shared equipment, and limiting class sizes. Some even installed specialized air filters. Maddie Watkins, owner of 202Strong, said that “working out in an indoor studio is safer than dining inside, as [clients] are masked the entire time and confined to specific zones.”

The fitness industry is an important sector of the American economy, not just because it supplies jobs and incomes to families, but also because it encourages and facilitates an active, healthy lifestyle.

As Americans adjust to the societal changes brought on by COVID-19, exercise is essential to maintaining physical and mental health and boosting the immune system. In cities such as the District, where many urban apartment dwellers do not have space for personal exercise equipment in their homes, access to exercise facilities is even more important—especially during winter months, when it’s more difficult to exercise outdoors.

Fitness studios should not be the target of government orders when they have been complying with local health and safety guidelines and have not been shown to increase the spread of the pandemic.

No activity involving other people is 100% safe, but customers and businesses were doing what they could to prevent transmission of the disease—and it appeared to be working.

Responsible government policy protects the health and safety of the public. Given there were no known instances of COVID-19 outbreaks in fitness studios or gyms in the District of Columbia, the government is out of line to ban indoor fitness classes. Government should not preemptively ban activities that have not contributed to the spread of COVID-19, and officials need to “show their work” before issuing harmful orders.