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July 16, 2020

Philly to reopen gyms, fitness centers with strict mask requirement

Health inspectors to visit businesses to enforce policies when restrictions lift on July 20

Fitness Coronavirus
Philly Gyms COVID-19 Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

As Philadelphia continues to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, the city will permit gyms and fitness centers to reopen with a strict mask and social distancing requirements on Monday, July 20, 2020. Unannounced inspections will be completed by the health department.

Philadelphia will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen Monday under strict social distancing requirements and a mandate that all members wear face masks, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced Thursday.

Gyms have been shut down since March when the first wave of coronavirus restrictions was imposed across the city and state.

In recent weeks, the city had held off on lifting gym restrictions due to evidence that vigorous physical exercise may lead to higher transmission of COVID-19.

With the city's case counts having stabilized at about 110 per day, Farley said Philadelphia is ready for a very cautious reopening of these facilities.

Masks must be worn at all times and people must stay at least six feet apart. Classes must be capped at 10 people, with required distancing. 

All gyms and fitness centers will be subject to proactive, unplanned and unscheduled visits by health department inspectors. Inspectors also will respond to complaints at specific locations. 

If gyms and fitness centers do not comply with guidelines from the city, they will be shut down again, Farley said. 

"I am going to be putting gyms on notice with this information today," Farley said.

If COVID-19 case counts trend in the wrong direction, or if local gyms are identified as a clear transmission route, the whole sector may again be closed across the city.

Farley noted that masks can make it difficult for people to comfortably do aerobic exercise. For this reason, weightlifting may prove to be a more suitable use of gyms and fitness centers in the city.

"Our biggest concern around the gyms is that when people are doing vigorous aerobic exercise, it's very uncomfortable to wear a mask, and so the gym users are not going to want to wear masks, and the gym owners may not want to enforce that," Farley said. "We think that if they do enforce that, they can operate in a safe way, but we're really putting the onus on the gym managers to do that enforcement and then we're going to inspect to make sure that takes place." 

Farley said the decision is an attempt to meet public interest in health and exercise while also being careful about infection control.

"For those many people who find vigorous exercise difficult to do with a mask, don't go to the gym then," Farley said. "You're not going to be allowed to run on the treadmill and not wear your mask."

The policy comes as Pennsylvania tightens restrictions on bars and restaurants, reducing their capacity limits and requiring that customers be seated and served food along with any alcoholic beverages, whether indoors or outdoors. 

Farley explained that gyms are different from bars and restaurants, despite the same overall concerns about ventilation, because masks can be worn.

"The real issue is, 'what's the risk in the situation?' And that risk is tied very strongly to whether people are weaking masks," Farley said. "In gyms, we initially did not open them because we were concerned people would not wear masks, but we've come up with a mechanism to enforce that. We hope we get very high levels of compliance. If we don't, then we'll be shutting gyms down." 

A timeline for resuming indoor dining remains unresolved in Philadelphia, where officials have maintained some restrictions that have been lifted elsewhere in Pennsylvania. 

"In restaurants, people cannot be wearing masks," Farley said. "I'm still far more worried about restaurants that are open in the rest of the state at 25% capacity, where nobody's wearing masks, than I am about gyms where people are wearing masks." 

The city plans to provide guidelines for gyms and fitness centers prior to their planned reopening.

Philadelphia remains in a "modified restricted green phase" of Pennsylvania's reopening process, with no further change in status expected before Aug. 1.

Philadelphia reported an additional 157 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the citywide total to 28,024 since the start of the pandemic. About 5-6% of tests are coming back positive, with a predominance of younger people represented in the new confirmed cases. 

"We are having delays in reporting of positive results to the health department," Farley said. "I'm getting concerned that delays in reporting may make it harder for us to be able to track our data trends and maybe influence our daily trends." 

The health commissioner said it's possible that delayed reporting may give a "false sense" of numbers decreasing. Two large national labs, LabCorp and Quest, account for roughly one quarter of Philadelphia's testing analysis. These labs have noted delays of up to a week, particularly for positive results, as cases in other areas of the country continue to surge. 

As a result, the city may try to redirect some tests to other labs in order to have a more consistent stream of results. 

An additional 18 fatalities reported Thursday brought the city's COVID-19 deaths to 1,664, including 863 nursing home residents. Many of the deaths reported Thursday were matched to databases from backlogs. The city has averaged about 1-2 deaths per day over the past two weeks, continuing a downward trend from previous months. 

Farley reiterated the broader importance of wearing masks and urged residents to continue to avoid social events to prevent the spread of the virus. 

"We do know that social events are taking place, but we especially think that these social events are contributing to the spread among young adults and that's what's driving the epidemic right now," Farley said. 

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