With the world joking about the COVID-20 around their waistline, many are looking to the gyms and health clubs to reopen sooner rather than later. As I write this, New York City’s fitness centers opened as of September 2, with stipulations.
Many extensive documents out there that have good information on this topic. The most useful and referenced below is the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s “Reopening: Guidance for Gyms and Workout Facilities.” Following is a layman’s perspective of the issues these clubs are facing and solutions that may help them open.
The standard for social distancing is six feet apart. While this may work in grocery stores and on the street, health clubs face the issue of cardio exercise, where forceful exhalation occurs. Medical studies show that aerosols can travel as much as 13 feet. Based on this, some environmental experts are recommending occupancy limitations as low as one person per 200 square feet, meaning a 20,000-square-foot health club can only allow 100 people in at a time. This may be an issue for smaller clubs, but my research with the two most popular brands in the New York City metropolitan area showed that most of their clubs are larger than 20,000 square feet.
A recommendation for cardio equipment is to space them in an “X” pattern with people facing away from each other and erecting barriers in front to minimize the migration of aerosols into traffic areas.
It is strongly recommended that all guests wear face coverings while at the gym. This may be an issue and a health concern for people doing cardio but makes a big difference in minimizing potential spread. Employees of the gym are recommended to wear a mask, face shield and gloves and should change and bag their clothing when leaving.
In my opinion, health clubs are already ahead of the curve in this regard. Hand sanitizer dispensers and equipment disinfection stations are commonplace in all clubs that I have visited, which has been over a hundred locations. Some additional guidelines to implement include propping doors open or positioning trash bins near cleaning stations so that people can use and then discard a paper towel when opening them. Routine disinfecting of equipment will see a spike in frequency. In addition to the normal disinfectant wipe-downs, after-hours maintenance cleaning may include either ultraviolet (UV) light treatments, hot steam or other processes to improve the disinfecting protocol. The biggest word of advice on applying a liquid disinfectant is to make sure the surface is clean and to follow the product label’s recommendation for dwell time.
The first recommendation that is given is to upgrade the filters in HVAC systems to MERV 13 filters. However, some systems cannot handle a MERV 13 filter. In those cases, the recommendation is to upgrade to the highest MERV level that the system could handle.
The next recommendation for HVAC is to install UV lights into the return ducts in these systems. The UV lights would effectively destroy any virus in the air as it is pulled into the system, therefore preventing the spread and keeping the rest of the system safe from contamination (filters, fan cabinet, coils, ducts, registers, etc.).
Another recommendation for HVAC systems is to increase the fresh air intake to as high a level as possible. Bringing in fresh air increases air exchange, which will minimize potential spread of aerosols.
Finally, it is recommended to put locker rooms, bathrooms and showers under negative pressure. Normally, this is already in place due to steam from showers, but they are recommending increasing the negative pressure to the maximum the system will allow.
Fans could help push aerosols farther. If they are not used, additional considerations should be made to prevent overheating.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers does recommend putting HEPA Air Filtration Devices (AFDs) into gyms for filtering the air to capture any aerosols. Here are my concerns with this method:
• Placement of the unit is vital. If it is in a corner, it will not process all of the air in the space. It must be centrally positioned and work with the air flow that is created by the HVAC systems rather than work against them.
• There are three filters in a HEPA AFD: a HEPA filter, a secondary filter and a pre-filter. These need to be replaced regularly as per the manufacturer’s recommendations
• Precautions are vital. The people replacing the filter should keep a log or have a sticker on the machine stating when the filters were replaced. They must use gloves and masks when replacing the filters, and should bag and seal the old filters for disposal. Note that these guidelines are for areas where no demolition or heavy dust creating activities are created. If there is heavy dust creation (even chalk), the pre-filter should be replaced daily. If the filters are not replaced with any regularity, they could do more harm than good.
To my knowledge, the sizing of the HEPA AFD for this application has no official standard. The only standard I know of is calling for four air exchanges per hour when using these units in environmental cleanup.
This is the new normal. Those who are dedicated to working out can do so but will have to exercise (pun intended) better precautions. Those who manage heath clubs will have more challenges, but they are not impossible to overcome. As someone who is tired of fitness classes via Zoom, I am looking forward to seeing how this unfolds.