Are Michigan gyms safe during coronavirus? A study in Norway suggests yes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it’s too soon to open indoor gyms throughout Michigan given the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. But a study out of Norway challenges the assumption that sweaty gyms are inherently risky during a pandemic. (Shutterstock)

Sept. 2: Michigan gyms, theaters, bowling alleys may finally be able to reopen soon

Even as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won the latest battle to keep indoor gyms closed in most of Michigan, fitness facility owners now point to a study from Norway that found no spread of COVID-19 among gym members during the pandemic.

A federal appeals court Wednesday night agreed to Whitmer’s plea to keep indoor gyms closed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. That decision reversed a trial court judge’s order earlier in the week that would have allowed Michigan gyms to reopen Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling hours before gyms were to reopen.


The judges said they “sympathize deeply” with business owners who must remain closed under the order, but wrote that “crises like COVID-19 can call for quick, decisive measures to save lives” by public officials who have to make such decisions. 

"The idea that heavy breathing and sweating in an enclosed space containing many shared surfaces creates conditions likely to spread the virus ... fairly supports the governor’s treatment of indoor fitness facilities," the judges wrote. 

But then, the very day of the appeals court order, came news of the randomized trial out of Norway

Health officials conducted a study of five gyms in the city of Oslo. They tracked and tested nearly 1,900 gym members aged 18 to 64 who were invited to return to their gyms for a two-week trial beginning May 22. A similar-sized control group from the same gyms were not allowed to return.

Those who returned were required to wash their hands, avoid body contact, keep three feet apart during floor exercises and six feet apart in high-intensity classes. The subjects could use the lockers, but not saunas or showers. No masks were required but members were urged not to touch their nose, mouth or eyes.  

Researchers found only one coronavirus case. This person was among the group invited to return to the gym but — crucially — had not used the facility before being tested, the study said. This person’s infection was traced to his workplace.

In addition, 91 employees at the training centers were tested, and none of them registered as positive for the virus. 

“Our trial showed no virus transmission or increase in COVID-19 disease related to opening of trainings (sic) facilities providing good hygiene and social distancing routines,” the study found. 

The study also noted that “basic hand hygiene and social distancing measures by securing 1 to 2 meters distance between individuals are well-proven and important virus transmission protection measures. They are inexpensive, easy to apply, and do not require large resources.” 

After its release, Norway this week reopened all of its indoor gyms, with the same precautions implemented in the trial. 

“I think it is very encouraging,” Dr. Tina Kinsley, president of the League of Independent Fitness Facilities and Trainers, said of the Norway study. The League, a group of independently-owned Michigan gyms and fitness centers, is lead plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit against Whitmer's gym closure order.

“It suggests that gyms are not the Petri dish for infection that the governor has stated. I look forward to it being introduced into evidence with everything else our lawyers have put together for us,” she told Bridge.

Robert Leddy, spokesperson for Whitmer, told Bridge in a statement: “The idea that gyms – with their high levels of heavy respiratory activity, shared indoor spaces, and shared surfaces – might be one of the later businesses to come back online in the midst of this global pandemic is hardly surprising and highly sensible.”

He also noted that an employee at a DeWitt Township gym outside Lansing tested positive for COVID-19, according to the gym. The gym reopened this week despite the last-minute panel ruling, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Jon Zelner, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told Bridge he did not find the Norway study persuasive because of the relatively low level of COVID-19 in Norway at the time of the study.

“All this would tell us is that there’s not a lot of cases in Norway,” he said.

Even so, Zelner added that it’s tough to make an argument that gyms are inherently worse for spreading COVID-19 than, say, bars, which reopened in the entire state in early June.

“There’s no reason to think a gym is riskier than a bar. It doesn’t make either a place you would go to without knowing the risks associated with it.”

He said a larger study is needed in places with a relatively low prevalence of COVID-19 to determine whether the virus is more easily transmitted in gyms. He said an alternative study with fewer people, but in a community with a high prevalence of infection, could also answer the question.

Citing lowering numbers of COVID-19 cases in northern regions of the state, Whitmer on June 10 opened gyms, salons and barbershops in much of the northern lower peninsula and all of the Upper Peninsula. But she kept gyms closed in the rest of the state because of its higher coronavirus numbers and concern that indoor exercise could further spread the virus.

In issuing an order that Michigan gyms could reopen, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney noted that while the state insisted indoor gyms posed a greater risk, its lawyers had failed to provide any evidence to support that argument. 

"Unfortunately, on the record before it, the court has not been presented with any evidence that shows a rational relation between the continued closure of indoor gyms and the preservation of public health," Maloney wrote.

Plymouth gym owner Kurt Hessenbruch: ““I read the whole study last night. At the very least, it is an argument for opening things up.” (Courtesy photo)

Kurt Hessenbruch, owner of HALE Strength and Shape in Plymouth, with an all-female membership focused on strength training, told Bridge Friday that fitness center owners are prepared to do what’s necessary to keep gyms safe when they reopen.

“Really all gyms are asking for is the opportunity to adhere to the same guidelines that everyone else is asked to do. That’s really all we’re trying to do here.”

Hessenbruch said he’s laid out sanitizing and social distance plans for his gym when it reopens, including wiping down surfaces every time they are touched and keeping members 10 feet apart when they work out.

While he waits to fully reopen, he said most of his members have returned to his gym for outside workouts, which are allowed under Whitmer’s executive orders.

He said he regards the Norway study as one more reason to give gyms a chance to prove their safety. 

“I read the whole study last night,” he said. “At the very least, it is an argument for opening things up.”

Greg Hill, owner of Lake Orion Ideal Core, a Pilates studio north of Detroit, said he finds it hard to swallow that Whitmer allowed bars and strip clubs to open back up while indoor gyms remain closed.

“We would like the opportunity to do so as well. I think one of the big things as gym owners is that we deeply care about our clients and we are going to do everything we can do to protect them,” he told Bridge.

In the meantime, gyms continue to adjust plans as members wait.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids notified members this week that its plans to reopen June 29 are now back on hold.

“In light of the appeals court ruling we have paused our reopening plans. We are saddened and heartbroken, but our priority has always been the health and safety of our members and staff,” it said in a membership email.

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Sat, 06/27/2020 - 8:10am

The Left currently worships at the idol of absolute safety and or security. No level of consideration or perspective or risk/probability is allowed. (Line 5 is another version of this.) This is why a teacher (in one of the statistically safest jobs in existence.) claims the need to need to quit because of the possibility of infection is lauded while a bunch of jobs such as trucking, farming, construction etc., facing real measurable risk as an every day fact just continue without any thought. With this phobic illogical perspective, society ceases to function.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 6:47pm

Or maybe it's because the poor, the vulnerable, and the environment are the most at risk, while the wealthy who profit from forcing people back to work in a pandemic and pumping fossil fuel under the Straights. It's not that we find solace in the state, it's that the state is the only recompense the working class has against the corporate powers that are currently toasting to their profits as the world burns. I don't know how you can be an adult who has worked a job and still hold on to the libertarian fantasies that guide your deeply deluded world view.

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 12:48pm

Matt, I would like you to expand on your perspective. I believe it is because people are weighing risk/probability that they are acting with greater caution. How many children are conscientious of generally accepted health guidelines including basic ideas like hand washing? I believe teachers should be allowed greater pause than people working in areas where their interactions are largely with adults; at the same time, I still see adults sneezing or coughing into their hands and immediately touch communal items like workstation keyboards and mice... so maybe we should all take a second. There are many countries that either had a shorter economic shut down or no shut down because their society functioned with consideration of others in their communities (Taiwan for example). This is contrary to what we're seeing at home, where we can't even agree on the smart way to move forward even given existing examples of what works and what doesn't. So, are you arguing we should've kept our economy opened without added protections and see how many people get tagged by this disease? Isn't it better to provide the community with proper PPE and have individuals act in the interest of others by following health guidelines so we can all move on from this nonsense? I put on safety glasses when I enter a shop area at work - But, it's not like I need to constantly worry about getting my eyes poked out by flying screws and bolts, yet it's smart to put on safety glasses let alone your liability for not following shop rules. The difference, however, is that I can choose to be an idiot and not protect myself with the safety glasses. It is, in my opinion, not okay for me to not protect others from SARS2 by forgetting my mask among other health guidelines. It is my responsibility to protect others, yet we do not have consensus. I can tell you I am considering risk/probability based on my perception of other's negligence. This is also why I wouldn't trust a company that has a history of negligence - why subject myself and others to added risk with no potential of greater return? Would that not be illogical?

Thomas Ghent
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:12am

Sorry, but this study proves nothing about Michigan gyms or gyms anywhere in the U.S.

First of all, Norway has flattened its curve very dramatically:

Secondly, the incidences of infection and death in Norway are much lower than in our country: 8,832 cases and 249 deaths.

Third, Norwegians are much more compliant about following health guidelines than we seem to be as a county.

Finally: gyms are notoriously germ-ridden and unsafe:

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 1:11pm

I agree with Thomas Ghent. Do the research, when this study was done it was a controlled group. No one was sick and Norway’s numbers during this times was 0-20 new cases a day. I own a gym and I want to make money but I care about people’s health. People are blaming everyone and very angry. Let’s try to not be selfish and educate ourself. Covid is newer and unknown. Be safe, wear a mask, was your hands, stay outside and social distances . You can still live your life and workout safely outdoors.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 6:35pm

And how big is Norway relative to the US?

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 8:21am

Gyms in Traverse City opened on June 15th and I was there when the doors opened. The owners have adopted some well thought out policies and procedures consistent with the CDC guidelines. The problem is that many of the patrons choose to ignore them, putting the owners in an impossible position. Are they suppose to ask people to leave? I made the decision to take the summer off and try to work out at home. I'll be back, but only when things "cool-down" a bit. Shame on those who have decided to make a public health issue a political issue. If the patrons agreed to follow these modest guidelines, gyms would probably be safe places. At least in our neck of the woods.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:13am

Not sure this study really matters as cases are in the rise. Seems moot at this point if that trend continues.

Nick Armstrong
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:42am

From the linked NYT article: “The findings were posted online on Thursday, but had not been peer-reviewed nor published.”

It just seems irresponsible to publish this before the study design can be scrutinized and the results verified. This is how we wound up with the conflicting mask information that is causing people to ignore public health guidelines today.

George Hagenauer
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:56am

What is most interesting here is the Norway approach to reopening- ie. running a test before doing it. My guess is that is due to a more public health/ driven, health care funded for all approach to government. Decisions related to health often have bigger societal costs than just to the individual. This is by the way true in our system as well as ones that are more universal and publicly funded. That person you infect if they develop a serious case of Covid 19 may cost a million dollars to treat (and not necessarily cure). That gets paid by all of us with insurance . The difference being that in a more universal and centralized system far more care is taken to make sure pandemics don't occur. The Norway study was done in spite of relatively low levels of Covid 19. The government that pays for much of the health care wants to keep Covid 19 at a low level. Quite a bit different than here.

Scott Roelofs(n...
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:56am

The governor has claimed all along that she is basing her decisions on science, which is clearly a false claim. She steadfastly refuses to state what data/science she is using. Yet, she continues to get away with it.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:56am

Thank you for this article. I would think gyms would be the cleanest places on earth, with how fanatical they are about making you wipe everything down, even if you just looked at a piece of equipment.

Burton Knows
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 1:38am

You make a generalized statement about ALL gyms. There are gyms that are human petri dishes, even the alleged "upscale" facilities. I belonged to several where sanitizing bottles were place next to the workout machines for people to clean and wipe down after use. On many occasion there were people that refused to wipe off there sweat after use. I complained to management and they said there was nothing they could do.
Of course they also wouldn't let me end my paying membership either. I've worked out at home ever since.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 11:26am

She should set a standard that any indoor establishment can reopen as long as it can show the ventilation system either has at least one air change per hour, opening windows to do the same, or HEPA filtration. They should recommend full spectrum lighting too. Opening windows and running fans would be good enough, except so many buildings stupidly have windows that can't be opened. The vast majority of the infection threat comes from indoor air.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 11:34am

Frankly comparing the safety of opening gyms in Finland to Michigan is disingenuous at best. The reopening of our businesses in Michigan has illustrated that we are incapable of following rules. Without the public’s strict adherence to the science we can thank our Governor for keeping us safe.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 11:56am

Norway is not Michigan. Good guess, based on testing of athletes at colleges, in Michigan C19 + rate is 1% amongst young folks. If 20% of that 1% are “super spreaders” another estimate based on data, we can expect, if say 1000 people go to the gym every day, 20 people will be infecting another 20-100 people a day. Most will be asymptomatic, and once again we have exponential growth. Norway probably had a baseline infection rate of 0.1% during the 2 week study. This study is why we need peer review. Maybe if a gym had massive cross ventilation with huge fans it would be a tolerable risk, but not yet.

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 8:10am

Wouldn't huge fans make the gym more risky with the air circulation potentially blowing virus particles around more?

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 11:49am

Good point. The fans would have to be pointing out a window. The viral laden exhaust would go outside. Fresh air would the replace the exhausted air from another open window. Cheap. But, the gym would need at least 2 windows, preferably on opposite sides of the room. Or, move outside.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 1:14pm

It is a contradiction to say people drinking and dancing all over each other in a bar or nightclub is safer then people 15 feet a part in a gym. It begins to look like a(n alcohol) tax income for the state issue, rather than a safety issue. The very source Gov. Whitmer uses, the CDC, has guidance on conduct in the gyms, not abstinance. It all begins to look very $/policy motivated.

Richard Harpster
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 1:17pm

COVID-19 is spread by viral droplets that stay in the air for up to three hours. The social distancing shown in the above picture is useless unless the people wear masks. One thing that have been consistent in all the pictures of gyms that have opened up illegally against the Governor's and court order is that they showed people working out without masks.

50% of the people infected with COVID-19 do not have symptoms and 50% of the people with symptoms will not get them for 5 days. Studies have shown people with the symptoms are most infectious at about the 5th day. This means that any temperature checks that gyms are stating as effective are not.

Some gyms have also installed an airPhx system inferring that it will kill any airborne virus.
Following is from the CEO of the company that makes airPHX:
The airPHX technology provides continuous disinfection. Historically, we have seen air and surface pathogen reductions of 90% - 95% or more in treated spaces. But we do not claim that bacteria and viruses released in a treated space are destroyed immediately nor do we contend that we kill 100%. That is because bioburden is constantly re-entering the treatment space. So while the pathogen levels are drastically reduced and with it, the probability of a transmission occurring from one worker to another is reduced, we can’t guarantee it won’t happen You would need to decide what PPE protocols to apply.
Jeff Kilduff
Chief Operating Officer
airPHX Companies
1311-A Dolley Madison Blvd.
McLean, VA 22101
(703) 346-8002

In closing, there is a reason why most gyms I know of are requiring you to sign a release form releasing them from any reliability if you get infected.

Although I am not against gyms opening, one simple rule should hold. No mask - No workout. Any gym allowing workouts without masks should be shut down.

Carolyn Hancock
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 1:55pm

Norway is a much more responsible country with regards to practicing protocols to prevent the spread. The entire US is horrible at it. Is say no to the comparison.

Marc Zigterman
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 2:00pm

"This article is a preprint and has not been certified by peer review [what does this mean?]. It reports new medical research that has yet to be evaluated and so should not be used to guide clinical practice."

The phrase, "or policy decisions" should be added to that disclaimer. Even if it were to pass muster after peer review, one study from a country with the virus under control by early May hardly applies to anything happening in the US or Michigan.

Geoffrey Owen
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 12:50pm

Duh, it's June. Take a Bike, take a Hike, go outside.......