Itemizer-Observer

Polk County — Last week, Governor Kate Brown announced modifications to the guidance for indoor activities in extreme risk counties, which took effect Jan. 29.

The initial guidance announced Jan. 26 of allowing just six people into indoor facilities, such as gyms and movie theaters, was met with a lot of angry business owners. By Friday, the guidance was updated for gyms to allow for a maximum of four groups of six people in different rooms separated by 24 feet per member.

For smaller facilities less than 500 square feet, the modified guidance allows for 1 to 1 customer experiences, such as personal training.

“The science has shown us that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, which is why we have clearly delineated guidance between indoor and outdoor activities,” Brown said in a statement. “We have seen over the last several weeks that Oregonians have largely complied with risk levels to the point that we have not seen a surge in hospitalizations that would have jeopardized hospital capacity. This means we are able to make these adjustments for Extreme Risk counties, which should assist both businesses and Oregonians as we continue to work to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

However, local gym owners disagree that science played any role in the decision to allow facilities to reopen with such restrictive guidelines.

Tony Jeffries, who has owned the 14,000 square-foot Monmouth Fitness Club since 2016, found the initial guidelines unfeasible. He said he saw no way of opening his gym back up to his 1,200 members only six at a time.

Once the guidelines were expanded, however, he decided to work within the given framework and reopened on Monday.

“We’re going to follow the mandate as best as we can. I still think it’s arbitrary, but at least it allows us to open back up. So we’ll take it as a win today,” Jeffries said.

Monmouth resident Tava’esina Sofa, a member and employee at Monmouth Fitness Club, was excited the facility was able to reopen after three months of state mandated closure to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’m so excited, because this is what we need, and it gives us some time to get out and do something for ourselves and be positive which helps our health, so I was super, super excited,” Sofa said. “I’m looking forward to getting back into it. It may take a while, because it’s been three months we’ve been out. We’ll work our way back up.”

Jeffries said Monmouth Fitness Club has four separate rooms he can spread his members throughout to meet the new mandates. However, Dallas’s Harvest Crossfit owner Devin Jones doesn’t have that luxury in his one-room, 5,000 square foot facility. He has 170 members and hosts classes that average 20 people per class. He wonders how does limiting him to six per class help anybody?

“It’s uneconomic — four groups of six in separate rooms, 24 feet apart,” Jones explained. “Let’s say we do partition this off into six 500-square foot gyms. How does that reduce the spread by reducing the airflow in this big building? It’s completely anti-science. It’s anti business. It’s trash.”

Jones said the state has failed to trace any COVID-19 outbreaks back to gyms. The new guidelines only hamstrings businesses like his, creating stress on relationships in a relational business.

He’s trying to make due within the rules outlined by the state, hosting outdoor classes under a tent and limited indoor workouts six at a time in half-hour blocks. He still feels the new guidelines don’t go far enough.

“It was a nice gesture, a nice thought,” Jones said. “But it doesn’t help anybody. It’s whack.”

An organization sprang up during the closures to help fight for their reopening — the Oregon Health & Fitness Alliance. Based in Salem, the OHFA has reached out to the Governor’s office, as well as the Oregon Health Authority, requesting the science and data on which they are basing the number 6 to be safe for fitness facilities, according to media representative Dianna Risley. Risley is also a general manager of two Gorge Athletic Clubs in Hood River and The Dalles.

“As of now, we have received no response to our public records request,” Risley told The Itemizer-Observer.

She added that while the new guidelines allow for a few more people in larger facilities, it does nothing to help aquatics facilities, which are one very large room, nor do they help smaller boutique studios. 

Risley explained that OHFA has been reaching out to partner with and facilitate conversations with the Governor’s office for months to no avail.

“We have presented her office with safe recommendations using the science and information which is available as well as modeling our proposals after what other states are doing,” Risley said. “We are one of only two states to have fitness fully shut down as of last week.” 

By contrast, OHFA has recommended to the Governor’s office to allow for 15% of max occupancy in extreme risk counties along with several additional safety recommendations. Polk County remains in the extreme risk category.

“By basing the occupancy cap on a percentage of maximum capacity, it takes into account the large variety of sizes of health and fitness facilities,” Risley said. “It is still our strong recommendation that any capacity limits, in any risk category, be based on science, data and use a percentage of max occupancy for each individual building. OHFA will continue to press this issue with the Governor’s office using all tools available to our team.”

Read the Governor’s latest guidelines online at https://sharedsystems.dhsoha.state.or.us/DHSForms/Served/le2352.pdf.

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