After shutting down in the spring, America's empty gyms are beckoning a cautious public back for a workout. To reassure wary customers, owners have put in place - and now advertise - a variety of coronavirus control measures. At the same time, the fitness industry is trying to rehabilitate itself by pushing back against what it sees as a misleading narrative that gyms have no place during a pandemic.
In the first months of the coronavirus outbreak, most public health leaders advised closing gyms, erring on the side of caution. As infections exploded across the country, states ordered gyms and fitness centers closed, along with restaurants, movie theaters and bars. State and local officials consistently branded gyms as high-risk venues for infection, akin to bars and nightclubs.
In early August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called gym-going a "dangerous activity," saying he would keep them shut - only to announce later in the month that most gyms could reopen in September at a third of the capacity and under tight regulations.
New York, New Jersey and North Carolina were among the last state holdouts - only recently allowing fitness facilities to reopen. Many states continue to limit capacity and have instituted new requirements.
The benefits of gyms are clear. Regular exercise staves off depression and improves sleep, and staying fit may be a way to avoid a serious case of COVID-19. But there are clear risks, too: Lots of people moving around indoors, sharing equipment and air, and breathing heavily could be a recipe for easy viral spread. There are scattered reports of coronavirus cases traced back to specific gyms. But gym owners say those are outliers and argue the dominant portrayal overemphasizes potential dangers and ignores their brief but successful track record of safety during the pandemic.
A Seattle gym struggles to comply with new rules and survive
At NW Fitness in Seattle, everything from a set of squats to a run on the treadmill requires a mask. Every other cardio machine is off-limits. The owners have marked up the floor with blue tape to show where each person can work out.
Esmery Corniel, a member, has resumed his workout routine with the punching bag.
"I was honestly just losing my mind," said Corniel, 27. He said he feels comfortable in the gym with its new safety protocols.
"Everybody wears their mask, everybody socially distances, so it's no problem here at all," Corniel said.