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After coronavirus, working out in a gym will never be the same

Working out is my primary coping mechanism, so not going to the gym feels like a really big deal to me in these uncertain times. I long for the harsh clang of weights against squat racks and the subtle nods of the other regulars. While it feels like those sounds and sensations are part of a distant dream, fitness facilities will open again. And when they do, I’m wondering what will make me feel safe going to them. What are gyms doing to make it as safe as possible for us to return? And what should they be doing?

The reality is, that there’s no going back to the status quo. “As they currently operate, gyms could be problematic for a number of reasons,” David Hirshwerk, an NYC-based infectious disease physician and professor at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra, tells Mic. Hirshwerk says that even though he misses working out at a gym, he isn’t ready for it to reopen. “When the degree of illness in our community is significantly less — far less than where we currently are — there can be thoughts to re-open,” Hirshwerk says. And when they do, things will be different, for our safety.

Hirshwerk has very specific recommendations about how gyms can protect people. Class sizes and even the number of people in the building should be restricted, equipment should be spaced out and constantly cleaned, athletes should wear masks, and spaces where gymheads gather — like cafes — should stay closed, he says.

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Gym franchises and fitness brands, it seems, are taking heed of the precautions recommended by experts like Hirshwerk. “The last thing we are thinking about is a grand opening,” says Rachel Katzman, co-founder and CEO of P.volve, a national fitness boutique based in NYC (that’s been closed since mid-March). The company has long been planning openings in Chicago and L.A. for years, but they’ve obviously been delayed.

So you can rest assured that gyms aren’t rushing to reopen — but they are planning strategically for when they do. “In consultation with a team of medical experts, we have designed a plan that elevates our already high standards to the next level,” says Judy Turchin, chief operating officer of luxury fitness club brand Equinox. SoulCycle and Pure Yoga, for context, are also operated by Equinox Group. All of these gyms, I'm told, will plan re-opening with existing priorities — health, safety, community, and cleanliness — in mind.

You can rest assured that gyms aren’t rushing to reopen – but they are planning strategically for when they do.

Katzman tells Mic that P.volve is also sticking to their standards, but recalibrating its ideas. The post-COVID approach at P.volve is not to try to attain some new kind of normal, but instead, Katzman tells to “embed themselves in the community as a support system.” All of these lofty statements about community investment sound great, but what will they look like in practical terms?Best case scenario, gyms would be able to guarantee the health of their members with testing. “The ideal situation would be to do a rapid test before an athlete can enter or perhaps have a test within 48-72 hours of entry,” says Hirshwerk, but adds that he doesn’t think that will be available anytime soon. What about temperature screening, something like what they’ve been doing at airports? “It can miss infected people and especially asymptomatic carriers,” Hirshwerk says.

The reality is that gyms probably will not be able to do a full medical work up on each person who comes in, but they can integrate their own screening systems. Turchin says that Equinox will be requiring that clients book their gym appointments a week in advance and that every person who enters the space will be required to sign a health declaration that states that they have not had symptoms of COVID-19 or been in contact with anyone who has prior to every visit. That’s kind of a high stakes honor system. I'm terrified that when my gym reopens, it will be full of secretly sick meatheads who don’t know what “rest day” means.

But, Katzman tells me, those people can still work out. They’ll just have to do it at home. Will they? I’m dubious. This pandemic has evolved a lot of people’s ideas about fitness, Katzman says. Now more people are confident that they can stay fit at home. “That’s extremely powerful,” she tells me. Our ideas about staying fit are changing, and gyms are responding with a smorgasbord of online offerings.

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“If there is a risk of a customer coming in sick, but they still want to do the workout, we can recommend a streaming video similar to the in-studio class that day or offer a virtual private training session,” Katzman tells me. P.volve is currently streaming all their classes and they will continue to do so when they reopen. Corepower Yoga has switched to a totally online platform while they’re physical spaces are closed, says a rep for the company. Equinox also has a ton of online offerings. Fingers crossed that these fitness behemoths follow P.volve’s lead and continue to offer streaming classes even when clubs reopen. This will keep folks who are potentially infectious home and out of the studio, which protects everyone.

While we're all going to have to shift our ideas about what the inside of fitness centers look like, it’s not all bad news.

But because no one can actually guarantee that they aren’t contagious when they go out in public yet, gyms are really upping their cleaning procedures. P.volve is planning on deep cleaning their facilities several times a day, says Katzman, and Equinox has some seriously high tech ideas about disinfection. Turchin says they will be using cordless electrostatic sprayers that positively charge the disinfecting chemicals inside to attract to every crevice of a surface. This, Turchin explains, will allow everything to be cleaned 360 degrees without any workers having to touch anything. Slow clap for the corporate epiphany that both high paying clients and low-paid cleaning staff deserve to be protected.

So, while we're all going to have to shift our ideas about what the inside of fitness centers look like, it’s not all bad news. I am not going to miss the accidental sweat mixing on my favorite elliptical.

As it will with every other shared space, the amount of contact you have with other folks at the gym is going to change. P.volve is planning to put six foot markers in workout areas and limit group class sizes. And machines may be a thing of the past in some gyms. Katzman says they are planning to have only no equipment or low equipment classes, and clients will be asked to bring their own gear. And since gyms are going to be asking you to bring your own equipment, many of them will also be selling it a lot cheaper, Katzman says, plus you can take it home because no one knows what the future of locker rooms is.