On the Friday before Thanksgiving, the Ontario government announced that fitness studios and gyms in hotspots Toronto, Peel, and Ottawa would have to temporarily shut down (again) as COVID-19 cases continued to spike. The same day, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, urged Ontarians to “limit trips outside of the home” and to only venture out for essential appointments, groceries, or work.
But for 74 people in Hamilton, ON, Williams' warning came too late. A single rider at a spin class at a Spinco studio in the city is now responsible for the biggest outbreak of COVID-19 cases associated with a business in Canada. Known as a superspreader event — in which a sole carrier infects multiple people — 46 riders, two staff members, and 26 family members or friends of the original 48 who got sick have been infected by the late-September outbreak. Hamilton public health has warned that there may be more cases in the coming days — and we may even see new safety measures in gyms (in Ontario at least) as a result.
Before you cancel your gym membership (after all, gyms and small businesses need our support now more than ever), here’s everything you need to know about superspreader events — how they happen, when you should be worried, and why you should maybe skip that indoor HIIT class for now.
What exactly is a superspreader event?
A superspreader event is a chain reaction of infections set off by a lone case, which typically infects a large number of people — kinda like that (largely maskless) White House celebration for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. They can happen anywhere — gyms, sure, but also beer-league hockey, funerals, even choir practices. The major concern with these coronavirus clusters is that the patient zero spreads the illness beyond their household and inner circle and into the community.
What’s particularly scary about the Hamilton outbreak is the studio seemingly did everything right — it followed all provincial protocols and guidelines, like operating at 50% capacity, keeping all bikes six feet apart, and enforcing strict sanitation measures between classes. The person who infected everyone also had zero symptoms and passed all screening questions (including a temperature check).
The latter is especially a cause for concern. If carriers are asymptomatic and feel completely fine, they are more likely to go on with their life as normal, which is when most transmission of the virus normally happens. All it takes is one person not wearing a mask or not staying six feet apart, and it can pass from one person to another to another and...you get the picture.
How worried should I be about this happening in my gym?
There's emerging research that these superspreader events are driving most of the new COVID cases; in fact, new studies suggest that 80% of cases are caused by 10% of people. They are are also more likely to happen — you guessed it — indoors. “Being in a confined airspace is a classic situation for superspreader events,” says Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto. Which means, with the colder weather motivating a lot of us to move our workouts and social gatherings inside, the risk of spreading the virus increases.
It’s also inevitable that you’re going to breathe heavier when you’re going through that squat circuit, which means further potential for spread. “You’re in a confined airspace with other people and their breathing is accelerated. If someone is filling the air with infected droplets and people are inhaling them over a prolonged period of time, chances are people will get sick,” says Furness.
But I thought gyms were okay if we practise social distancing?
In theory, yes. “It all depends on where you live and where you go,” says Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious diseases pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Though gyms have temporarily closed in some parts of Ontario, in many other parts of Canada, they are allowed to operate under certain guidelines. So, if you live in northern B.C. or the Atlantic Canada bubble, for example, hitting up your favourite pilates class, while still following social-distancing rules — be sure to check out the studio's safety protocols, too — should still be okay.
Still, the Hamilton outbreak has prompted Ontario health officials to re-evaluate the current guidelines. Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer, has said that new regulations will be announced to the public very soon.
How can I keep myself safe if I still want to work out?
If gyms are still open in your part of Canada and you aren't high-risk and believe you've limited your exposure to the virus, find one that enforces mandatory masks and limits the amount of people allowed in the facility. “A gym that makes you wear a mask all the time and has good ventilation isn’t actually that dangerous,” says Furness. (By ventilation, he means an excellent HVAC system, or a large space with plenty of open windows and doors.) Spending less time in the gym can also limit exposure. (Whoever said no to shorter workouts?) “There’s a lot of things where I believe you probably could do with a mask, like yoga and some strength training,” he adds.
The good news is that there are many masks on the market made from moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester and polypropylene that allow breathability and don’t get soggy with moisture (ew).
If you prefer a HIIT or a spin class where it’s more difficult to wear a face covering, it may be a better idea to skip it for now than go without. “Maybe indoor cardio heavy classes and activities aren’t going to happen until COVID is done,” says Furness, who reminds us that anytime you leave your house you could potentially be exposed to the virus. (In Ottawa, for example, only 8% of people with positive cases have reported visiting gyms or restaurants.) “To me it’s like Russian Roulette — you can pull the trigger a bunch of times and nothing happens but every time you go there’s still a risk."
If I can’t go to spin (and can’t afford a Peloton) what should I do?
It might be time dust off those runners and head outside — at least until the first snowfall. “Doing outdoor activities might be more reasonable to do on the west coast than in Toronto in the winter, but anything you are able to do outside would be great,” says Furness.
That doesn’t mean you have to become a marathoner either — outdoor HIIT classes, yoga in the park, biking, hiking, ice skating, and skiing are all ways you can still get in your daily dose of exercise while staying safe, not to mention the plethora of at-home workout plans currently streaming. “I know this isn’t what people want to hear, but unfortunately, the only way to stay completely safe is to consider outdoor activities,” says Furness. “Gyms and fitness studios aren’t the ideal place to be at the moment."
*This story was originally published on Oct. 20, additional reporting was added