Conversation with a gym owner

Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer has consistently advised the Executive to close gyms and health services whilst off-licences and fast shop shops remain opened. This has aggravated local gyms and fitness facilities and in this article I interview the owner of a large NI gym and give him a voice.

On the 24th November, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Advisor Michael McBride told the BBC that there had been “some sizeable outbreaks [of COVID-19] associated gyms” without qualifying that statement with evidence or being asked to qualify that statement by the interviewer.

Up to that point I had already been working with several gyms in trying to obtain the original evidence that Dr McBride presented to the Executive to defend his request to close health facilities initially. When this statement was made on the BBC it caused quite a few people, in the fitness industry, some alarm, myself included as someone who had been closely following the story.

By the date this interview aired, I had already reached out to all eleven councils in Northern Ireland seeking the numbers of reported infections within their leisure facilities and had, by this stage, received replies from nine. As of the time of writing this article, I have received ten responses which have been summarised in this Twitter thread.

From those reporting council areas there had been 23 reports made by members of the public to various councils informing them they used their premises before receiving a positive PCR test result. Each council was at pains to tell me that there is no evidence the infections occurred in their premises but only that these people had used their facilities at one time prior to testing positive.

I have also been in contact with several large independent gyms who have each informed me that they have had no reported cases and know of no one who has. It was then I decided to write to Dr McBride asking for his evidence of these “sizeable outbreak associated with gyms”.

A Freedom of Information Request made in Scotland on 13 October asked similar questions as I have posed of Dr McBride and the Scottish government’s response corresponds with the responses I have received from each of the 10 councils.

FOI reference: FOI/202000097855
Date received: 13 Oct 2020
Date responded: 10 Nov 2020

Information requested

You asked for the data in relation to the number and percentage of COVID 19 infections that have been transmitted or traced back to gyms and exercise classes since the reopening of these facilities on the 31st August in Scotland.

The detail should also include a breakdown by local authority area to highlight where in the country any transmissions are occurring.

Response

While our aim is to provide information whenever possible, in this instance the Scottish Government does not have the information you have requested. It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty where or when a person contracts Covid-19, so it is not possible to provide information you requested. (emphasis added)

What we can do is retrace the steps of positive cases to understand where and when they have interacted with people in the week prior to their diagnosis. Unless we are able to identify another positive case they have interacted with, it is unlikely that we will be able to identify which interaction led to the transmission.

What we do know is that once a person contracts Covid-19 it is highly likely that it will spread amongst the household. With that in mind we need to limit opportunities for non essential interactions between households and that is what has driven the current restrictions

Scottish Government

Then there was this research by UK Active:

New research from industry body, ukactive, has found gyms are almost risk-free environments for COVID-19, with an estimated 0.020 positive cases per 10,000 gym visits – results that are statistically insignificant.

Source

And we also have a Randomised Control Trial in Oslo looking at “Transmission in Training Facilities. With 3,764 participants there was one positive test result and it turns out that person likely picked the infection up at work.

There was also a huge analysis done in the US of 50 million gym check-ins, across the country, looking for infections reported and the results were “statistically irrelevant” in that study too.

A study of gym visit data from the US suggests that health clubs and fitness facilities are not contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

An analysis of 49.4 million member check-ins across 2,873 gyms in the US over three months studied the “visit-to-virus” ratio data from health and fitness clubs.

It showed that, out of the nearly 50 million visits, only 0.0023 per cent had tested positive for COVID-19 – a result deemed statistically irrelevant

Source

So the onus is on Dr McBride to provide evidence for his claim that there has been “seizable outbreaks associated with gyms” in NI. If it is true, then something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the gyms concerned and the response should have been more directed at the gyms responsible rather than punishing every gym for the failings of a few.

the conversation

One of the gym owners who had been in contact with me previously reached back out to vent his frustration at the complete lack of transparency around the Executive’s decision to close health facilities. He agreed to answer some questions.

Me: What is it that you find most frustrating/annoying about Dr McBride’s desire to close health facilities?

Owner: Philip, why would you close services that help people get healthier yet keep opened services that make people unhealthier especially at a time when we need people to be as healthy as possible? It’s backward thinking and I find it impossible to understand. The message is that you can drink yourself stupid every night whilst stuffing your face with junk food but it’s illegal for you to go to a gym and train. That’s an attack on the people who take personal responsibility for their health and these people are also very unlikely contributing in any meaningful way to this virus spreading. Why would you make it illegal for people to go to a gym? You did great work on this and uncovered the report the Executive seems to have been presented with about a spread in Korea. This at a time when there was no known spread happening in gyms here. The Korean thing is a case of seeking evidence to support a position. Even if we take it as it is it only points to high intensity classes in small, not well ventilated rooms with no mention of safety measures in place. I’m not surprised they tried to keep this evidence hidden. So would I if trying to hide behind it.

Me: Their argument will be, that as the virus is spread from person to person, that keeping people apart is the best way of controlling its spread.

Owner: But don’t they also say that well ventilated, spacious rooms are what are recommended to stop the spread? And this is why we have to limit the numbers using our facilities for each session, and why all the equipment has to be sanitised before and after each use. We’ve been doing all that and it’s been working. They can’t have this every way Philip. They can’t say, do all these things to stop the spread then say sorry even though you’ve done all those things and even though there’s no spread coming from your facility, you still must close. I Know quite a number of gym owners and they have all busted a gut to make their businesses Covid-Safe to ensure they can stay opened so that they can continue to provide a health service to their members. You don’t open a gym if you don’t care about people’s health and we see these closures as a direct attack on those who are trying to take ownership of their own health. Morbidly obese people who cry emotionally during exercise as they try and change their lives after being told they could die, by their GPs, if they continue their lifestyles. These people have now been sent home to get fatter and suffer more complications. Don’t they say obesity makes it easier to get Covid? We have people riddled with arthritis whose only natural pain relief is training. We have referrals from the medical professions to try and help people. We have classes for the elderly, some of whom the classes are their only socialising events of the week, we work with kids, single mothers, people with depression and anxiety. These people have been sent home to fester. This fixation on covid, covid and only covid is creating a tsunami of sick people right across the board. We may not be able to see them at the minute, but this narrow-minded one track thinking is going to have disastrous impacts on our entire society for years to come.

Me: I would agree with you that healthy people are being punished for the poor-health of others. What is your view then of unhealthy people given that you work in the health industry? Surely you would be looking to make unhealthy people, healthy? Are you angry at them?

Owner: Of course not. Of course not. But there’s this thing called personal responsibility. When people come to our gym we try and instil this into them the best we can. Own your own health. Very few obese people are overweight due to medical conditions. The vast majority are obese because they eat too much. A lot of that has to do emotional or psychological issues. They come to us a victim of their health and we often hear “it’s not my fault, I try”. Well, you’re fat because of your actions regardless of the trigger. You smoke because you smoke, regardless of the trigger. You drink because you drink, regardless of the triggers. If you choose to sit at home, get fat, drink alcohol, watch junk TV and then get ill as a result, how is it fair that the person who wants to change their lives and is making a conscious effort to must lose their freedoms so you feel safe? Harsh words, absolutely. But the kid gloves need to come off after almost a year of people’s lives being taken from them. We have dozens of people over 80 that use our facilities. 12 months of life is a very big deal to them Philip. Someone at 20 or 30 maybe 40, a year? No problem. We have a couple who are 88 & 89, or sorry were 88 and 89. They’ll be 89 and 90 this year. A year to them is priceless. Both people are in great health but yet made suffer, for what? Yes I want to help everyone get healthy and fit but the truth is, lots of people are too comfortable to change their lives. It’s not fair the healthy must be made pick up the tab, if you know what I mean?

Me: Most of those that are dying though are older people. Around 95% are over 60 with the vast majority of those all having comorbidities. I agree with you again on personal responsibility but it’s a bit late for someone in that age group, who is struggling to breathe today, to be told about personal responsible. How far do we take the personal responsibility argument?

Owner: Don’t get me wrong, those people need help and should get it. If I could help them I would. I don’t mean they shouldn’t be helped, sorry if I came across that way. But the vast majority of those ill people are ill because of their lifestyle choices , maybe some live in poverty and are malnourished, I’d read there is something like 20% of Covid deaths due to dementia? That’s a horrible disease and I for one wouldn’t argue that was due to a lifestyle choice. But most health related issues are because of how we live and what we do, or do not, put into our bodies. If you are ill or at risk then you need to be protected until vaccinated. Asking healthy, young, agile people, to stay at home because someone over 60, with comorbidities, could catch a virus is quite frankly Philip, morally incomprehensible. My parents are both 70+ and my dad would be in an at risk group. He nor I would ever ask a fit 20 year old kid to stop his life so my dad could feel protected. I get very angry about that. Really angry. We’re burdening future generations with the long term effects of guilt and fear for something that really doesn’t effect them.

Me: Will you take the vaccine?

Owner: No. I don’t even get a cold and haven’t done in years. I can’t actually remember when I last had one. Why would a healthy person want to take a vaccine? Isn’t it something like 99% of people who get the virus will recover? And that’s 99% of people who get it! Everyone else won’t. Why vaccinate healthy people against a virus that likely won’t affect them? In short no, I’ll sign a waiver if they ask me to.

Me: In closing, would it mean any difference to you if Dr McBride presented evidence of the spread he said happened in gyms and if so what difference would it make?

Owner: It would be interesting to see what gyms he’s referring to as I’d contact them to see what precautions they took and how they felt the spread occurred so that I could learn from their mistakes and help my colleagues learn too. We want everyone to feel safe and be safe to train in our facilities. But that’s so hard to do when fear is everywhere. It’s like government and the media are working together to scare everyone senseless isn’t it? But we must go on providing healthy interventions in people’s lives and help to undo the fearfulness they’ve been forced to live with.

Me: One very last question. You asked to remain anonymous for this interview, why?

Owner: My reason is that there’s a very angry mob that goes after anyone online, especially if you own a business, and you question the restrictions. I don’t want that type of attention at the moment. It’s not that I’m afraid of it, but the focus needs to stay on getting the evidence and getting gyms opened. People would use me questioning the restrictions as an excuse to drown out the valid points I’m making and make my points into something they are not. I am not denying Covid or anything about it. I’m questioning the Executive’s response to the virus around gym closures. Do they even carry out impact assessments? Do they have any idea what they’re doing to this country? They say they want to save lives, but it seems the only lives they want to save is anyone with Covid. They’re crazily fixated and demented about this. You said a while ago you felt they were winging things. I’m not sure you’ve ever said a truer thing.

Me: Yeah, around gyms I believe they’ve closed them, not because there’s science behind the decision, but because to them it makes sense to do so. They’ve deviated so far from the science that it no longer seems to be guiding their decisions. Being so consumed by fear their decisions are being guided by an irrational thought process. The idea of people sweating and exhaling forcefully is enough to make them close gyms. It doesn’t matter the evidence may not support their closures. We see the same with the mask hysteria. It may make sense to wear a mask to prevent viral spread but it isn’t backed up by data. The further detached you become from good science the more inclined you are make decisions based on fear and guesswork.

Owner: 100%. They’re more afraid of what they think may happen at gyms than what is actually happening at gyms. I’m so angry at them Philip. We’re following the science, they tell us. Like yeah OK, you’re clearly not. You’re indeed winging it.

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