Masks For Some (Not All): Gyms Navigate Murky Vaccine Terrain As Exercise Classes Fill Up
For more than a year now, Katie Burke’s work life has been a month-to-month series of twists and shimmies. A co-owner of the Zumba studio Triangle Dance 4 Life, Burke has had to make more than a few pivots in how she taught her dance classes since coronavirus took over.
The initial change came all at once. Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home orders shuttered gyms almost right away in spring 2020. Later, in the summer, as North Carolinians came to terms with capacity restrictions at stores, takeout-only restaurants and the mask mandate, hundreds of gym owners across the state had to find a way to stay afloat and comply with a seemingly endless stream of statewide orders.
Burke moved all classes online for a time, then added outdoor classes at a local park as restrictions eased. The mask mandate was recently lifted and Burke, who used the guidelines to establish safe practices, is wondering what to do next.
The pandemic nearly doubled attendance to some classes and her tiny studio space cannot accommodate everyone while maintaining social distancing. Vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors, but with roughly 1 in 4 Wake County residents remaining unvaccinated, some clients should still be masking up.
Burke isn’t sure how to proceed. Should she require all clients to wear masks indoors or trust that unvaccinated clients will continue to wear masks without prompting? Talking to people about their vaccination status is equally as fraught.
“It’s such a fine line,” she said, “I don’t want to get too personal (with clients’ health information).”
Remaining outdoors indefinitely isn’t feasible either. Even in the shade, North Carolina’s sweltering summer weather won’t allow it, Burke added. In this new reality where not everyone is vaccinated, deciding what and how many coronavirus measures should stay in place has become a gym-by-gym decision.
At the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, staff balance personal safety with feasibility. The organization recommends that unvaccinated people — more than half the county’s population — wear a mask indoors, said Pamela Hempstead, the Y’s group exercise and health equity director.
Hempstead, who oversees upward of 20 weekly classes, from spin to water aerobics, said enforcing these guidelines is tricky.
“We are a Christian organization and it would be entirely too messy to ask people to show proof of vaccination,” she said.
Staff at the front desk are also too busy to ask people to show their vaccination cards at the door, she added.
Still, Hempstead said many participants continue to wear a mask indoors and staff is encouraging people to use hand sanitizer. The Y’s janitors will continue to clean the facilities more often, and staff have made wipes available for clients to sanitize their own spaces.
Lyndsey Hogue, owner of MELT Fitness Studio in Greenville, acknowledged that conversations around vaccine status may feel off-limits to some instructors. Hogue, a nurse who worked on coronavirus units throughout the pandemic, brings it up. A personal trainer who used to also hold outdoor bootcamp events, Hogue has seen some of her clients’ vaccination cards, either at her own request or because clients brought it up.
But the stringent procedures — constant sanitizing and ascertaining each client’s vaccine status — is a privilege larger gyms may not have, she added.
“I’m only able to do that because I’m looking after one person at a time,” she said. “My clients feel safe and I feel safe. I don’t know whether they are going home to family members who have not taken the vaccine so it’s my responsibility to make sure they don’t contract it at my gym.”
Even so, she added, demand for private training is booming, especially from clients who want to manage their risk while working out.
Natalie Johnston, owner of Spring Pilates, a boutique studio in Wilmington, has seen a similar increased demand especially as tourists return to the coast. Johnston said instructors have continued to wear masks at the gym regardless of vaccination status. Staff also check vaccination status of clients, and folks who have not been fully vaccinated must wear their mask between exercise stations.
With only a handful of clients at the gym at a time and few pieces of equipment, staff have tried to create a safe environment that’s also free of judgment, Johnston said.
“We just want everybody to feel comfortable when they’re stepping into a nice boutique studio environment so if they’re not vaccinated, we don’t want them to feel as though they’re being judged,” she said. “We don’t want anybody that has been vaccinated to feel threatened (either).”
Other gyms have found it easier and more productive to stay mostly virtual. Stephany McMillan, founder and owner of the Greensboro-based Rise and Flow studio, has found herself in that position. McMillan’s studio is one of four Black-owned yoga gyms in the state. As with many other gyms in the state, McMillan and her staff pivoted to Zoom workouts early on in the pandemic. A community dedicated to dealing with trauma and sharing hardship, McMillan’s Zoom classes attracted clients from across the state and the country.
McMillan says Rise and Flow will offer a few outdoor workouts in the fall, but for now, classes meet online, even if members are vaccinated.
“The reason we shifted to virtual is for the safety of our students and members,” she said. “It was an easy decision to say ‘hey, I value your health’ so it wasn’t a difficult decision because there’s that value of protecting the community.”
Burke, the Zumba studio co-owner, is still thinking of her options. Interest in online classes from the Cary studio has waned now that in-person activities have returned, she said. At the same time, outdoor classes in 90-degree weather aren’t appealing to most.
“We’re kind of waiting to see what the collective fitness community handles,” Burke said. “ … Our business is very, very small and I just don’t feel we are in a position to be trailblazers in that matter.”
North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.