Montana Gyms Can Now Reopen With Distancing, Sanitation Requirements

May 15, 2020

Gyms of all kinds across Montana will have the option to reopen May 15 under guidance from Gov. Steve Bullock. Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton found that some facilities don’t plan to open until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is available. Others opened at the beginning of May. Bolton shares what he learned with Nicky Ouellet.

Nicky Ouellet: So last week, Gov. Bullock announced gyms would have the option to welcome back members under phase one of his reopening plan. Gyms originally weren’t supposed to open until Phase 2. What guidelines has Bullock put out there for gyms that want to reopen today?

Aaron Bolton: Yea, so the big one is that gyms need to operate at half capacity and users need to be able to remain six feet apart while they’re working out. Only members of gyms can use facilities, so no walk-ins or guests. Staff need to wear masks and members should wear them when possible. And gyms need to be wiping down their equipment with an EPA certified disinfectant like Clorox wipes or spray throughout the day and all frequently touched surfaces after they close.

Ouellet: I can imagine that can be pretty tricky for certain kinds of gyms. Are facilities reasonably able to follow these guidelines?

Bolton: Not to the T. The first thing I thought of were climbing gyms. These places have thousands of hand and footholds bolted onto walls anywhere from 10 to 100 feet tall. Gym owners say there’s no real feasible way to sanitize those holds multiple times a day.

I spoke with one of the owners of SPIRE Climbing and Fitness in Bozeman, Jeff Ho, and during a facetime tour he said the gym is asking climbers to use several hand sanitizing stations before and after they hop on a climb, they’re also spacing out climbing routes so climbers have more space when they’re on the wall. They’re also having members sign up online for times to climb so they can limit how many people are in the facility.

"The other thing that our software allows us to do is keep track of participants when they check in and check out. So we’ll be able to monitor how many people are in the facility at all times and also be able to contact-trace if we need to," Ho says.

Ouellet: If it’s hard to follow every rule laid out by Gov. Bullock, do climbing gyms feel like they can open safely under the circumstances?

Bolton: Spire is opening Friday and says they will monitor things closely. Steepworld in Billings actually reopened last week with special permission from the Yellowstone County Health Department and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Here’s co-owner Jim Rote.

"We worked with Yellowstone County Public Health about just, kind of, youth programming. We have young at heart that are able to come in to climb. Our fitness area remains closed."

Bolton: So the county health department says Steepworld’s early reopening was allowed because state health officials considered it an "organized youth activity," but the gym is open to adults right now.

The state says it’s not tracking the businesses it’s allowed to open early under special designations. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Jon Ebelt said quote “these conversations are ongoing on a daily basis both at the local and state level.”

Ouellet: So some gyms are definitely eager to open it seems. But are there gyms or exercise facilities that are deciding to remain closed?

Bolton: Yea, there are. Particularly, I found that yoga studios are either not opening at all, or are providing their classes online only, or delaying reopening their doors. Yoga studios are generally small single-room setups where there’s shared equipment and a focus on heavy breathing in environments that may not have the best air circulation. Yoga is a group-based workout and indoor classes or workout groups aren’t allowed under Gov. Bullock’s guidance.

Jane Adams, owner of Kalispell Yoga says it’s just too risky for her clients, who are in their 60s and 70s.

"I’m not planning on opening until there is either a vaccine or until there is some good reliable medication to treat it."

Ouellet: Oh wow, what is she doing to stay afloat? I mean a vaccine could be a year or more away from being a reality.

Bolton: Well, Adams says she’s seen an uptick in her business selling yoga dvds on Amazon, so her studio has actually been used more as a storage facility for those. I heard from places that provide personal training saying that’s also become more appealing to customers because it can be done online or with adequate social distancing.

But not every kind of facility has been able to adapt so easily. Gyms of all stripes say they’ve lost some members, and facilities that haven’t been around very long say they’re also hurting because they aren’t attracting new members right now.

Ouellet: I want to go back to group services for a minute. Yesterday morning I drove by a trainer at the YMCA here in Billings leading a class in the parking lot. Is that allowed?

Bolton: Outdoor classes are allowed and are one way gyms are providing a group service, but some are also sending the gym home with their members. Here’s Tamara Podery, co-owner of Anchor Fitness in Great Falls.

"We rented out all of our equipment and we’ve been going live on Zoom every day multiple times a day to make sure they’re still staying with their fitness."

The updated governor’s directive says indoor group classes aren’t allowed. But there’s confusion on what that means for certain gyms, especially ones where they say they can social distance during classes.

Podery says she’s working to provide limited classes in person and a Keep it Real Crossfit in Butte is doing the same thing according to owner Amanda Valdez

"Classes are always a bit small but we are definitely gonna limit them because we're gonna have to sign into classes through our members page on Facebook, with no more than 10 people being allowed in the class."

Ouellet: Who’s monitoring how gyms are following these rules and whether gyms are reopening in the proper way?

Bolton: Well that really falls to county health departments, but Bullock isn’t requiring health departments to institute some kind of formal process for this. In the case of Keep it Real Crossfit, Valdez said the Silverbow County Health Department asked for an outline for their plan and health officials came out to the gym to go over how she’s going to provide her classes in a safe way. But other counties like Yellowstone are just fielding questions from gym owners as they come in.

Ouellet: Aaron, thanks for your reporting.

Bolton: Thanks for having me.

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