Denver Gym Closures and Workout Safety Amid COVID-19

Awaken Gym, at 777 Santa Fe Drive, closed in early August.
Awaken Gym, at 777 Santa Fe Drive, closed in early August. Google Maps
Few business categories have suffered more during the COVID-19 pandemic than gyms. Even after the state's stay-at-home order was lifted and they were allowed to reopen under specific public-health rules, concerns about safety kept many regular patrons away.

Among the most frequently cited issues: Under Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines, individuals are allowed to exercise without wearing facial coverings, though masks must be donned once workouts are over.

With so many customers not yet returning to their regular routines, a wide range of gyms, yoga and dance studios, as well as other fitness-related sites, have permanently closed over the past few months, including Awaken Gym, at 777 Santa Fe Drive. In an early-August announcement to customers that he was closing shop, owner Orench Lagman wrote: "I have many fond memories of the gym and the connections I've made at this location, so this news comes with a heavy heart, but it's simply the best decision to be made right now specifically from a financial standpoint. I will always appreciate those of you who supported me through this time and I want you all to know that I did try to make this work and wanted badly for relocation to be an option, but, again, financially it's just too risky especially considering the future unknowns with regard to COVID and gyms specifically."

Against the backdrop of this gym and so many others closing, we reached out to the CDPHE to get answers to common fitness-facility questions. Here's what the department had to say:

Westword: Why does the CDPHE consider working out in a gym to be reasonably safe even though customers don't have to wear facial coverings while exercising?

CDPHE: Masks must be worn inside gyms. During heavy exertion, it is okay to take your mask off for a few moments to restore healthy breathing. We expect business owners and gym patrons to follow the intent of the guidance, which is to protect public health during an activity that is considered high risk. If wearing a mask is too difficult while working out at the gym, individuals should exercise outdoors while staying six feet away from others or at home.

Would people be safer working out in a gym if they wore a mask or facial covering?

Yes, which is why they are required in gyms, as well as all other public indoor spaces.

Are there safety risks for people who wear masks while exercising even if they don't have a pre-existing respiratory condition, or is doing so safe for most people as long as they monitor themselves to make sure they're getting enough oxygen and aren't becoming light-headed?

In some cases, extreme physical exertion can make wearing a mask uncomfortable, which is why people are allowed to take it off for a few moments to restore healthy breathing.

Would you recommend mask usage while exercising for people who can tolerate wearing one under such circumstances?

Yes. Mask usage helps to reduce the transmission of the virus, which is why masks are required in gyms as well as all other public indoor spaces.

Can people working out propel droplets on their breath more than six feet — or is six feet of social distancing still adequate for safety?

Studies have shown that people who are working out and breathing heavily expel more respiratory droplets. We are still learning about the virus, but masks and physical distancing are required in gyms.

Does risk rise for people in gyms the longer they work out? For example, is someone who works out for thirty minutes at less risk than someone who works out for an hour? Is there an optimal recommended workout time for someone at a gym?

In general, working out inside at a gym is a higher-risk activity. The longer individuals are potentially exposed to the virus, the more the risk they have of contracting it.

Do people working out emit and propel more droplets than someone who is not involved in heavy exertion, and if so, can you quantify the difference?

A person working out hard will likely expel more respiratory droplets than when they are not working out, but the difference is not something standardized across all individuals.

It doesn't appear that any outbreaks have been linked to specific gyms in Colorado thus far. Is that the case? And if so, have random infections been traced to gyms in the state, but not enough at a single location to be considered an outbreak?

So far, there have not been any confirmed outbreaks associated with gyms. A confirmed COVID-19 outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a facility or (non-household) group with onset in a fourteen-day period. Often when people test positive for COVID-19, there are many different potential places, or "exposures" where that individual might have come into contact with the virus. If someone thinks they were exposed in a gym setting, or that they exposed others in a gym setting, they should contact the gym so that other customers could be notified of possible exposure and get tested. They should also notify their local public health agency.

Is working out at home significantly safer than doing so at a gym?

Activities in which you are not interacting with others always have less risk than activities where you may come into contact with other people. There is less risk of infection at your own home than at a gym.

For more information, visit the CDPHE's mask-guidance page.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts