On behalf of a broad coalition of health and fitness centers across Maine, we want to applaud the governor and her administration for reacting quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and leading our state successfully to “flatten the curve.”

Like most other Maine industries, gyms and fitness studios closed in March because of the pandemic. It’s been a long two-plus months for businesses and employees alike not knowing what the future holds. Some industries were given the green light to resume operations in May. Health and fitness centers were even given some latitude to open up as long as strict guidelines were met, such as small outdoor classes or one-on-one indoor instruction. These facilities understood this was a tiered approach with the plan of a full reopening of all centers by June 1. Although these rules have severely limited our ability to provide needed fitness services for most of our clientele, we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel soon after Memorial Day.

We were dismayed when Gov. Mills reversed her reopening plan and announced May 19 the decision to delay the full reopening of health and fitness centers, because of new studies raising concerns about the transmission of the virus in such settings. Even more alarming is there is no indication when we will be allowed to take the next step: opening our doors to more customers. This is concerning for not only the future of our businesses but also the health of our customers.

Approximately 250,000 Mainers are served by health and fitness centers around the state annually. We are proud of the work we do to help our patrons improve their physical, mental and immune system health.

According to a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, physical activity and other lifestyle changes can prevent five of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. (before COVID-19). Evidence shows that physically active lifestyles can improve immune system health and diminish the risk of contracting some communicable diseases, including upper respiratory tract infections. In fact, recent research from the University of Virginia points out that regular exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a major cause of death in patients with COVID-19.

We are committed to finding a solution to help return Maine citizens to a state of good health, as the restrictions placed on health and fitness facilities the past 2½ months have negatively affected our customers’ health. Since March, physical activity levels have declined sharply. Of greatest concern, obesity-related conditions appear to increase the risks associated with COVID-19.

Beyond physical fitness benefits from exercising, there are extensive mental health benefits related to physical activity. Studies show that exercise can help ease the symptoms of depression. Exercise also has numerous benefits to people with substance use disorders, who are particularly suffering during a pandemic that addiction experts have called “a national relapse trigger.”

One study that has been cited as a source for the reopening plan reversal stems from a case in South Korea involving a Zumba workshop where the virus infected more than 100 people. However, these studios are significantly different from most health and fitness center offerings in Maine.

The event discussed in the study was held two weeks before the South Korean CDC issued its social distancing recommendations, and five weeks before it closed fitness centers. More than 20 participants exercised in a small studio measuring only 646 square feet (about the size of a large hotel room). Maine studios are dramatically larger, allowing appropriate social distancing that takes into consideration movement and breathing intensity.

Both the social and environmental factors cited in the South Korean study are very unlikely to be re-created in Maine, especially when using recommended CDC guidelines. The vast majority of exercise done in fitness centers involves strength training, light aerobic exercise, stretching and low-intensity group exercise like yoga and Pilates, which do not result in the heavier breathing hypothesized to contribute to denser isolated droplet transmission. Besides, higher-intensity exercises can take place in larger facilities that do not have the same transmission effect as occurred in these small dance fitness classes.

Twenty-eight states across the nation are safely reopening their health and fitness centers. New Hampshire has plans to reopen fitness facilities June 1 using industry-developed guidelines that require a minimum of 8 feet of social distancing in group exercise classes.

The Coalition of Maine Health and Fitness Center Owners is able to provide fitness offerings, including group exercise, with adequate space and safety protocols to mitigate any risks to our staff and customers, and we have developed and presented to the state COVID-19 prevention guidelines and standards for all Maine health and fitness centers.

As sites of not merely entertainment and recreation but also preventive health interventions, health and fitness clubs are integral to restoring and maintaining the health of Maine residents.

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