Gyms are once again closed in Toronto, for most intents and purposes, as Ontario reverts back to a modified Step 2 of the provincial government’s Roadmap to Reopening.
This time around, the province has mandated the shutdown of all “indoor areas of facilities used for sports and recreational fitness activities, including gyms” for at least 21 days, effective as of 12:01 a.m. this morning.
There are exceptions, of course: Athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics can still access gyms, as can “select professional and elite amateur” sporting leagues. Individuals with disabilities can use indoor gyms for physical therapy, and all fitness studios can technically host capacity-limited classes outdoors… But it’s January. In Canada.
Most people find it too cold and miserable to exercise outside this time of year — which consequently, and coupled with all of the New Year’s resolution “January joiners,” makes it usually one of the busiest seasons for gyms.
Not so for 2022, as Ontario gyms enter their fourth mandatory lockdown period since the pandemic first hit back in early 2019.
“This lockdown is especially disappointing as we were starting to see good growth during the last quarter of 2021. January is always a good month for gyms but not when we’re forced to close,” says John Murphy, owner of The Body Engineers in Toronto’s Junction Triangle neighbourhood.
But it’s not just this one single closure that’s hurting business owners (though, undoubtedly, it will). Rather, it’s the constant back-and-forth, open and close, uncertainty of what the government is going to restrict next and when.
“We had to close in March 2020 for approximately 4.5 months. Then again on Oct. 10 for just over one month. We were back open on Nov. 13 and then had to close Nov. 23 after being open for 10 days,” says Murphy.
“We then weren’t able to open indoors until July 16, 2021. So, including this latest closure, that is now four times for a total of about 13.5 months to date.”
Murphy opened his gym, which specializes in intelligent training, injury prevention, and longevity, among other things, back in August of 2019.
While off to a great start initially, he says that revenue dropped by 80 per cent in March of 2020. It took the business until summer of 2021, when gyms reopened under Step 3, to recover from that blow.
“I haven’t been able to give myself a salary since opening due to the lockdowns,” says Murphy, who holds a PhD in Experimental Aerodynamics among his many body science and physical training certifications.
“What was particularly tough about my situation is that I didn’t have long enough to establish a big enough group of loyal clients, which made selling online training more challenging when we had to close in March 2020.”
And that really is a big problem for gym owners and clients alike: Virtual training is not an effective substitute for the experience of training regularly at a gym.
“The reality is people are paying for the experience, constant feedback, social interaction and the ability to use specialized equipment to target different muscles,” says Murphy.
“Despite what people think, it is really difficult to replicate that online. When it comes to training the body, especially when recovering or working around injuries, which is what we specialize in, the trainer needs to work with the client in person.”
The Body Engineers, like many Toronto fitness facilities, will be open virtually for online personal training and classes during this latest lockdown, as well as for in-person Muscle Activation Techniques treatments to help clients with pain and dysfunction.
Looking forward to reopening, Murphy is optimistic, as long as the government changes its approach to tackling rising case counts with the advice of many “independent health experts across different health disciplines” — including those who can speak to the impacts of lockdown measures on mental health.
“Ultimately this problem is about protecting people’s health and not overloading the health system,” he says. “I would ask Premier Ford if he thinks keeping people indoors and making it more difficult to exercise is the best way of achieving that. Gyms are not the problem, the virus will spread anyway.”
Scarborough’s Club 1 Studios tells blogTO that it will similarly be offering physiotherapy and massage therapy services in person during the shutdown, as permitted by law, while offering virtual services including fitness classes, personal training and wellness coaching to members “to help keep them on track.”
As for how long they can do so while staying afloat, the gym’s owners are uncertain.
“This has put a great deal of strain on our business, and we don’t know what or if there is a future for our business,” Club 1 tells blogTO.
“We don’t know why gyms would be closed when retail shopping, big box stores, some entertainment venues and film productions are permitted to remain open, at a time when we should be encouraging people to exercise and taking care of their physical and mental wellness in a safe environment.”
The question of why gyms (and restaurants and schools and at one point small retail stores) have been forced to close while thousands of people can still cram into Costco or Walmart has been coming up consistently since the early days of COVID-19.
“What the health table’s trying to do is limit the amount of visits that you’re making out there. If you’re going to one of the big box retailers, it’s kind of a one-stop shop,” said Ford in December of 2020 when asked about the discrepancy.
“I know it’s not fair, believe me, I know it’s not fair — but it really limits people from going out and making four, five, six stops on the way home to pick stuff up.”
This latest lockdown does permit people to visit malls and all retail stores (with 50 per cent capacity limits in place), voiding that rationale.
Some might argue either way that, now, with delivery services in full swing and so many people feeling trapped indoors, a well-ventilated gym with proper cleaning protocols in place is one of the best “stops” a person could make for their health this dreary January.
An older petition calling upon the Ford government to make gyms essential is gaining traction again on Twitter this week as citizens once again question the effectiveness of preventing people from effective exercise.
“I finally got a hold of my mental health and started regaining my physical health using the gym after 9 months of heavy marijuana use and now I’m just about five weeks sober,” reads a new comment on the petition, which has more than 40,000 signatures.
“If damn hair salons can stay at 50 per cent capacity, there is absolutely no reason gyms can’t stay AT LEAST at 50 percent. The gym isn’t just about getting looking good. It scares me that gyms are deemed non-essential… meanwhile the LCBO and dispensaries are operating no different than before.”
“Without the gym I have no equipment to continue my exercise, which at one point in time was very important. We should not be stopping physical activity and exercise because of a pandemic,” reads another comment.
“Also one of the safest and cleanest places I’ve been since COVID-19 started. The gym is an area that everyone respects, nobody wants to lose it. Gyms save lives.”
On Twitter, many are pointing to studies linking obesity with a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and openly wondering what kind of messsage the premier is sending to Ontarians with his “fast food = good, gyms = bad” stance.
Experts also worry about government policy enabling sedentary behaviour, promoting unhealthy habits and even sparking permanent fears of the gym among people who are anxious about germs.
“Fear is probably the worst thing to feel during these times. When you are in a state of fear you are more vulnerable to disease and infection. At some point we have to come to the reality that we need to live with this virus and focus on long term solutions and not quick fixes,” says Murphy on the topic.
“As with everything, quick fixes never last. Life is too short to be in a state of fear all the time. Rather than avoiding situations it is much better to focus on things we can control such as improving nutrition, increasing muscle mass, reducing stress and improving sleep. Why is there no focus on this from the government?”