CDC Recommends Steps to Prevent COVID-19 Spread at Gyms

[Editor's Note: This story was updated to include the World Health Organization's prior recommendation on mask wearing.]

Health club operators should require mask-wearing, improve facility ventilation, enforce distancing measures, facilitate hand hygiene, and emphasize to staff and members that they should stay home when feeling ill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended on Feb. 24.

The recommendations come after the CDC published two reports related to outbreaks at fitness facilities during summer 2020. The outbreaks occurred at fitness centers in Honolulu, Hawaii, from June through July 2020, and Chicago in August through September 2020. The outbreaks resulted from several preventable factors, most notably that no one was wearing a mask, but also including poor ventilation, infrequent mask use, and persons with symptoms of or confirmed COVID-19 infection attending classes.

The mask-wearing recommendation by the CDC contradicts what the World Health Organization recommended in August 2020 about not wearing a mask during exercise and instead maintaining physical distancing. That recommendation, however, was offered prior to these two CDC investigations. 

To reduce transmission in fitness facilities, the CDC recommends that gym operators:

  • Ensure staff members and patrons wear a mask even during high-intensity exercise
  • Enforce consistent and correct mask use
  • Increase or improve ventilation by maximizing fresh air delivered to occupied spaces
  • Increase filter efficiency of heating, ventilation and air conditioning units
  • Use portable high-efficiency particulate air filtration units where indicated
  • Ensure that fans do not direct air from one patron to another
  • Install physical barriers
  • Make foot traffic flow in a single direction
  • Use visual cues for physical distancing
  • Add hand sanitizer stations
  • Clean with Environmental Protection Agency–registered products for surface disinfection Reduce facility occupancy and class sizes
  • Enforce physical distancing (maintaining at least six feet of distance between all persons)
  • Limit physical contact and class size
  • Prevent crowded spaces
  • Increase opportunities for hand hygiene
  • Remind patrons and staff members to stay home when ill
  • Move exercise activities outdoors or virtually when possible

“The good news for the health and fitness club industry is that the CDC’s recommendations are closely aligned with current industry guidelines,” Brent Darden, IHRSA interim president and CEO, said in a media release from IHRSA. “Globally, 1,552 fitness facilities have signed onto the Active and Safe Commitment, pledging to adhere to these minimum standards.”

Currently available evidence suggests fitness centers implementing appropriate safety protocols are not high-risk venues for COVID-19 transmission, according to Alexandra Black Larcom, senior manager of health promotion and health policy of IHRSA. Just 1.71 percent of COVID-19 cases in the Chicago area were attributed to gyms and fitness centers, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. In Honolulu, one cluster of 25 cases has been reported in fitness centers since Nov. 4, representing less than 1 percent of total cases in that period. Contact tracing in several other states shows that cases attributed to categories containing fitness centers appear to make up a small proportion of total outbreaks.

“The industry recognizes that risk for COVID-19 cannot be zero,” Larcom said. “However, many facilities have been closely following the CDC guidelines outlined in these reports since the fall, and fitness facilities communicate risks, guidelines, and protocols with their members.”