News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Are gyms safe harbors in COVID-19 pandemic?

When Governor Kate Brown announced a return to restrictions on businesses and gatherings in a “two-week freeze” to combat a spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, gyms across Oregon went dark again.

But evidence is accumulating that indicates that gyms are not a vector for spreading the coronavirus — and that preventing people from using gyms for exercise may be having a negative impact on the health and wellness of many Americans.

Last week, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) announced results from a study conducted by University of Oregon’s Consulting Group (OCG).

IHRSA’s report by Melissa Rodriguez states that: “By examining the correlation between weekly gym attendance data with the following week of positive COVID-19 rates, researchers found a non-statistically significant correlation between COVID-19 case rates and gym attendance.” (More information may be found at

The University of Oregon study used data from Colorado. Tate Metcalf, owner of Sisters Athletic Club (SAC) and secretary of the Oregon Health and Fitness Alliance board of directors explains:

“They chose Colorado because they have intense contact tracing,” he said.

Colorado and several other states have allowed gyms to keep operating because they see no correlation between gym visits and COVID-19 cases.

“We have been talking to stakeholders, and we do not feel this is one of the higher-risk settings because people are wearing masks at the gym. Gyms are ensuring social distancing and also cleaning their equipment. So we are comfortable allowing it,” said Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health & Environment.

Metcalf said that he hopes Oregon will take heed.

“I’m hopeful that changes are made in Oregon, that we follow what other states have done,” he said.

In Sisters, some gyms have provided outdoor workout opportunities, but not everyone can handle working out outdoors, especially as winter weather sets in. Metcalf notes that local gym owners have done a lot to mitigate potential for COVID-19 spread and create a safe indoor environment.

“Those of us who are in the industry and really care are doing it right,” he said.

At SAC, Metcalf has significantly upgraded air filtration to kill virus spread through the air and purchased an electrostatic gun to kill viruses on surfaces. When the gym was open, patrons sanitized equipment before and after use, and the workout spaces were reconfigured to keep people widely separated.

“Distance people enough, and it’s going to be safe,” Metcalf said. “And we have that capability.”

Metcalf thinks that the work gyms have done to create safe environments can be used as a model for other types of business while precautions remain in place as vaccines are rolled out.

“I’d like to see that science will prevail and we can be part of the solution as far as ‘here’s what works,’” he said.

There are odd anomalies in the state-mandated restrictions that may have more to do with how gyms are categorized than with their actual impact on spread. Gyms are considered part of the recreation sector. Physical therapists are part of the healthcare sector.

For years, Therapeutic Associates has used SAC for rehabilitation programs. They still do, even with the gym closed.

“Physical therapy has access to our equipment,” Metcalf said. “So they can use it and evidently that’s safe, but our members can’t use it.”

Metcalf is not merely making a special pleading for his business sector.

“If gyms were the second-biggest source of outbreaks of COVID, I’d be the first to say we all have to shut down,” he said.

But the science is showing that is far from being the case — and the negative effects of cutting off people’s access are significant.

Metcalf notes that much of SAC’s clientele is older, and they need to maintain mobility and strength to maintain their safety, well-being, and quality of life. Some are able to mitigate blood pressure or diabetes issues through exercise. He saw all of those benefits severely impacted in the first shutdown last spring.

“It was gut-wrenching,” he said. “You could just see that they’d aged a year in just that short time. It was shocking to see, actually.”

Many in the fitness industry point out that maintaining health and fitness is important in avoiding illness and could be a factor in averting severe cases of COVID-19.

Exercise is widely understood to have important mental-health benefits, including staving off depression, which is a looming threat for many in a time of crisis and turmoil. Metcalf recognizes that SAC and other gyms won’t soon be able to return to being social gathering places as they used to be, but they have remained a refuge for people stressed by conditions.

“For a lot of our members, that was the one place… that they allowed themselves to go, because they felt safe in it,” he said.

Metcalf and other members of the health and fitness industry hope that the mantra “follow the science” means that studies that show gyms taking appropriate precautions are a safe environment are taken into account — and that policies in Oregon change.

“If the metrics don’t change, it’s going to be a long time before gyms can operate,” he said. “Allow us to help the people who really, really need it.”

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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