Jennifer Ackerman of Cumberland lifts a 35-pound dumbbell during a morning class at CrossFit Yarmouth on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Lifting weights in a parking lot at 5:30 a.m., the bar tends to be a bit chilly. So Jennifer Ackerman came prepared.

“You start out with gloves and usually take them off a couple minutes into it,” she said Thursday, a few hours after her early-morning workout at CrossFit Yarmouth.

Ackerman was one of five women in the class, which resumed last week after the state eased some restrictions originally included in Gov. Janet Mills’ March 18 executive order, which prohibited social gatherings of more than 10 people in order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On May 8, the Mills administration announced adjustments to Stage 1 of its phased reopening plan that allowed fitness and exercise gyms – initially scheduled to be part of a Stage 2 reopening on June 1 – to hold indoor 1-on-1 training and outdoor classes of 10 or fewer clients beginning May 11.

“We’re back with a lot of adjustments,” said Ackerman, 43, of Cumberland. “We get our equipment out from the gym one at a time, bring it to our area and stay in our area so we can stay six feet apart and have plenty of space to work out.”

The owners of CrossFit Yarmouth used spray paint to delineate 10-by-19-foot sections of the parking lot for each class member. Equipment is wiped down and sanitized before and after each class. Locker rooms are off-limits and the bathroom is only for emergencies.

“The owners are very mindful of the safety of all the members,” said Ackerman, whose husband attends an evening CrossFit class, “so I’m not worried that we’re going to be exposed. We’re outdoors and pretty spread apart, and we don’t share equipment.”

But when it comes to reopening gyms themselves, there are fundamental challenges associated with preventing the spread of disease within any enclosed space in which people are engaging in rigorous physical activity, according to some public health experts.

“Gyms and fitness centers are a major conundrum,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and the state’s former top health official along with being a sister of the governor. “When people have energetic exhalations – yelling, breathing out hard, breathing heavily, which you do when you’re in a gym – the droplets that are exuded go much farther than six feet. And if you’re contagious, those droplets can be loaded with virus.”

Carefully spaced, women take part in a morning workout at CrossFit Yarmouth, led by instructor Sara Casper, right. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mills pointed to a study released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a COVID-19 outbreak in a relatively rural setting in northern Washington that was traced to a choir practice. Although the members used hand sanitizer, didn’t hug and half stayed home, there was one with mild cold symptoms who attended the two-plus hour practice on March 10. Of the 60 other members who attended, 52 became ill (32 confirmed and 20 probable), three were hospitalized and two died.

“They all took precautions that were thought to be necessary,” Mills said, “and yet two died.”

So while disinfecting all equipment and high-touch areas is good strategy, Mills said, the factors that led to the viral transmission at the choir practice are similar to most gyms and fitness centers: people gathering indoors for more than 10 to 15 minutes, having energetic exhalations and not wearing masks.

She did say that being outdoors seems to mitigate the risk, with sunlight, breezes and more room. Still, Mills said, we all know people who are loud talkers or spitters, and the tendency when social distancing is to talk more loudly, which increases the range of respiratory droplets beyond 6 feet.

“This is all evolving,” she said. “People are studying this a lot and everybody is scratching their head.”

Maine is currently the only state in New England that has allowed fitness centers to reopen, albeit on a limited basis.

T.J. Leach of Portland works out with a group from CrossFit Beacon at Fox Field in Portland on Wednesday. Public health officials are far more concerned about bringing the workouts inside to gyms and fitness centers, saying it will be challenging to limit the spread of the virus within enclosed spaces where people are engaging in high-exertion activity. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A concerned reader who described himself as an employee of a health and fitness business wrote to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram to express his apprehensions about going back to work on June 1.

Among those apprehensions: With people breathing hard, should social distancing be increased beyond 6 feet? If cloth bags from home aren’t being allowed in supermarkets, should bags of personal belongings be allowed in gyms? Locker rooms and gyms brimming with exercise machines seem impossible places to keep clean and disinfected. As for facilities with pools, the chlorinated water seems safe enough, but flotation devices and changing areas would be difficult to keep sanitary.

Meghan May, a professor of infectious disease at the University of New England, told the Press Herald in March that scientists don’t know how long the coronavirus can remain suspended in the air around, say, a stationary bike or yoga mat.

“So many surfaces at a gym, and so much more face-touching than we realize as we wipe away sweat or we drink from our water bottles,” May said two months ago. “A gym could be made safe in theory, yes, but it’s so unlikely, and we would never know if it wasn’t (safe). … I wouldn’t risk it.”

Last week, May declined to weigh in on the decision to reopen gyms and fitness centers. A UNE spokesman said Thursday that the university does not comment on state policy issues. The Press Herald/Sunday Telegram reached out to other public health experts who also declined to be interviewed, citing similar reasons.

Richard Evans, one of the owners of Quest Fitness in Kennebunk, began offering small outdoor classes on Monday and said they will continue indefinitely. In addition to a large parking lot, Quest has use of a grassy area near a pond.

Lisa Sweet of North Yarmouth hefts a kettlebell in her CrossFit Yarmouth class. Rules relaxed last week to allow outdoor fitness classes of 10 or fewer people. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Over the past two months, Quest instructors have been putting out videos and live-streaming classes, and Evans said those likely will continue as well.

“There are people on June 1 who aren’t ready to come back, but they want the support of instructor-led classes,” he said. “So we’ll keep that going.”

Starting Friday, Quest began offering a Car Barre class that incorporates elements of dance, yoga and strength training, but instead of using a ballet barre, classes will be held in the parking lot with all vehicles two spaces apart, and each participant will lean on their automobile for support.

As for weight training, Evans said there will be no more hands-on spotting or form correction other than verbal. Clients will be encouraged to do lighter repetitions rather than trying to max out. A separate studio with its own entrance is available for patrons with a higher risk of serious health problems from coronavirus.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development is scheduled to publish safety checklists for gyms and fitness centers on May 20.

“Our customers are calling us every day asking what the guidelines will be,” Evans said. “People have been isolated. I think Zoom and virtual stuff is great and it filled a need, but people are excited to have that visual and social presence.”

Debbie Duryee, co-owner of Crisp in Scarborough, has tried to maintain a social media presence since closing her doors on March 15 and offered half a dozen virtual classes each day in boot camp, yoga or cycling. Because all 18 of her instructors work as independent contractors, Duryee said Crisp didn’t qualify for a small-business loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Crisp began outdoor boot camp classes in its parking lot with a cap of 10 people Thursday morning. When the yoga room resumes its heated classes in June, Duryee expects limits of around 10 instead of the typically 40 in pre-pandemic times.

She said smaller class sizes won’t translate to profitability: “We’re going to be able to pay our bills, but we are certainly not going to thrive.”

Preston Peabbles, one of the owners of NXGen Fitness Center in Scarborough, said he’s glad his facility added an outdoor space of about 5,000 square feet of artificial turf in 2019. Spin bikes can be rolled outside and boot camps held there.

A misting sanitizer for spraying down equipment nightly is on order. One staff member is dedicated solely to cleaning. Paper towels and disinfectant will be abundant.

“I think people have enough information to keep themselves safe,” Peabbles said. “If they do feel like it’s not a safe place, they don’t have to come. Obviously, that’s where our online classes can come in.”

Mindful of safety, the owners of CrossFit Yarmouth say they sanitize equipment before and after each outdoor workout and keep the limited number of participants separated. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Tracy Moore, owner of Bay Club Fitness in Portland, doesn’t have the option of holding classes outside because she’s located on the third floor of One City Center, a downtown office building. She’s been busy spacing things out, removing equipment and revamping her website to accommodate all the complex scheduling it’s going to take to ensure smaller class sizes, and more of them.

Last year, the Bay Club offered virtual spin classes in house, and Moore said she plans to expand that to her group fitness room, as well.

“People go into a studio, a screen comes down and live instructors are on the screen,” she said. “So it’s kind of like doing it at home, but they’re in the club.”

Besides not knowing the exact items mandated by the state checklist, gym owners also don’t know how many customers will return. A recent survey of more than 10,000 visitors to the website RunRepeat.com found that half of all American respondents (50.2 percent) said they would not go back to their gyms upon reopening, and more than one-third (35.7 percent) have or are considering canceling their memberships.

John Rooks, co-owner of CrossFit Yarmouth, said a small number of his facility’s roughly 50 members put their memberships on hold. Many of the members, including Ackerman, signed out equipment to use at home during the shutdown.

“We have a small, tight community,” he said, “so we were able to weather it a little better than some larger, (mega) gyms might be able to.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.