The Summit County Health Board, meeting on Monday, voted for exemptions in their mandatory mask order to allow patrons of local fitness centers to exercise without the masks under certain conditions after hearing appeals by a coalition of fitness centers as well as the Snyderville Recreation District.
The motion approved by the board would say the mask isn’t required when customers reach their user space and are engaged in strenuous exercise. But the users and equipment must be separated from each other at a distance of six to ten feet. And the customers have to wear face coverings at all other times in the facilities.
County Health Director Rich Bullough said that the question of how to exercise, while wearing a mask, has stirred up more public feedback than he’s ever received in his professional career.
“How do you mitigate risk of COVID spread within an indoor facility when people are—I don’t want to say hyperventilating because they’re not—but when their respiration is high during exercise,” he said. “How do you mitigate that. One of the mitigation measures is masks, and one of the mitigation measures is face coverings. There are different studies that show that certain types of face coverings are more effective than others. And I’m sure it’s not a surprise to the fitness experts here that the more effective a face covering is at blocking the virus, the more uncomfortable it is to exercise in.”
Bullough said the evidence isn’t clear on whether indoor fitness centers pose a significant risk of spreading COVID-19. He said that international studies have concluded there is a risk. But there isn’t evidence of a problem in Summit County or in Utah—that is, he said, not yet.
Representing one of the appellants, the Snyderville Recreation District, Melissa O’Brien and Matt Strader said they have already established a distance between the equipment used for cardio—items such as weights, treadmills and Stairmasters. They said they could increase the separation if necessary.
Melissa Garland, representing a group of smaller fitness centers, said they had a modest, limited request. She said customers should be able to remove the mask once they get to their particular station—whether their purpose is exercise, yoga or similar activities.
“We feel that, if we can update and continue to stay stringent with our approach, then the ability to allow someone to walk into a studio with a mask on, get to their yoga mat, take it off for an hour, and put it back on when they leave, will allow us to stay in business, will allow students to enjoy their practice, and will ensure that we keep the county safe,” Garland said.
The appellants said they know that Health Board members sympathize with local business. But they said it’s been a struggle—first reopening in early May with restrictions; and then dealing with the mandatory mask order.
Melissa O’Brien said they’ve had more cases of patrons suspending their memberships or asking for refunds, since the mask order came down.
“If you remember when we first opened back up, we were limited to 20 people a floor, even in our 87,000-square-foot facility,” O’Brien said. “We did not see near the refund requests then, that we’re seeing now. Everyone’s saying, ‘Forget it, we don’t want our pass. We want a refund” And that is part of what’s killing us this month, is just everyone is kinda saying, “We’re throwing in the towel, because we don’t wanna work out with masks.”
Health Board member Kim Carson suggested, however, that the drop-off in customers could also be occurring because they are concerned by the increase in coronavirus cases; or because weather is allowing more outdoor exercise.
Still, Garland added that the business people she knows have taken a double hit.
“In order to adhere to the first mandate, to even re-open, most of our businesses lost upwards of 50 percent of their business just to get to that place,” Garland said. “With the mask requirement in place, much again as Melissa and Matt have indicated, the mask requirement has resulted in a further decline of 30 to 50 percent of the business, below what was already declined. Starts to get some businesses to the place where they just can’t afford to stay open. In fact, some businesses have closed.”
Health Board chair Ilyssa Golding said the current situation hopefully won’t go on for a long period of time.
Garland said if it does, that could lead her to contemplate some pessimistic options.
“And again, speaking strictly for myself, and not the rest of the group, if we have to stay at this level, it’s actually more cost-effective for me to shut down completely,” Garland said. “And at that point, I’d like to turn to the county for some kind of rent support, or something until we get—there’s some idea out there that sort of says, “Look, if you feel that it’s so critical should we be looking at something that extreme, I actually have said, wondered out loud if that wasn’t where the county was going—that there needs to be another shutdown.”
In response, Rich Bullough said that, absolutely, the county isn’t planning to head for another lockdown. He said the mask order is their best hope to avoid that.
The exemptions approved by the Health Board will take effect when Deputy County Attorney Dave Thomas prepares a formal order and it is signed by Golding.