During this pandemic, nothing is more important than friends. Fortunately for Stephen Ross, the founder and chairman of the firm that owns Equinox Holdings and its subsidiaries SoulCycle, Blink Fitness, and Pure Yoga, he may have very beefheaded, suggestible friends in high places.
Ross, a Trump supporter, was one of 16 business leaders on a conference call the day before the White House revised federal health guidelines for reopening businesses to include gyms in the first wave, according to a report in the Daily Beast. The White House readout of that call shows that corporate leaders including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, and Treasure Island Hotels CEO Phil Ruffin “shared ideas for ways their industries can safely return.”
A spokesperson for Ross’s firm, Related Companies, denied to the Beast that Ross, who has donated about $300,000 to the Republican National Convention since 2016, brought up the topic of gyms: “Stephen Ross never discussed gyms, exercise clubs or anything like that with the President and this story is factually incorrect garbage.”
The revised social distancing guidelines for state and local governments state that Phase One reopenings should commence after a number of criteria are satisfied, including downward trajectory of flu-like illness and documented cases, “robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers,” and the ability to surge intensive care unit capacity. Schools and bars should remain closed during Phase One, the proposed guidelines state, and visitors should be prohibited at senior living centers and hospitals. But large venues will be able to re-open under “strict physical distancing protocols,” while gyms “can open if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.”
Georgetown University O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law director Laurence Gostin was blunt to the Beast: “Gyms are like a petri dish.”
“People are close to one another, they’re sweating, they’re coughing and sneezing, they’re touching multiple surfaces, they’re sharing equipment, they’re indoors,” Gostin told the site. “Literally all of the heightened risk factors for COVID transmission are all entwined together in a gym... There was certainly no attempt to put in any scientific evidence as to why they’re safe or how they could possibly be made safe.”
Science backs that surfaces in gyms are not particularly germ-free places, as well as that gyms may be high-risk locations for spreading coronavirus, though individuals can reduce that risk somewhat by proactively scrubbing equipment.
Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith told Vox that, as sweat is generally not a transmission route for covid-19, the risks of going to the gym during the pandemic aren’t inherently higher than going to any other large public venue during the outbreak—provided they are extremely rigorous about cleaning any equipment with disinfectant before touching it, as the virus can easily be spread to surfaces by multiple routes, including sweat that has become contaminated after the fact.
Be as careful as “... anywhere else where you would be touching things and in somewhat close contact with people—but as the virus is spreading, all of those activities are becoming increasingly risky, especially if you are in a group that is likely to be more severely affected by Covid-19,” Smith told Vox. “I think individuals may want to consider any aspect of how they go out in public during these times, both for themselves and the rest of their community, particularly vulnerable individuals.”
For his part, Trump spent much of Friday encouraging right-wingers who showed up to statehouses across the U.S. to demand an end to pandemic restrictions in recent days (some of them carrying firearms) to keep up the pressure. On Friday afternoon, the president demanded that governors “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, where the virus is still spreading and public gatherings are prohibited for health reasons.
Correction: An earlier version of this post identified Ross as Related Companies’ CEO. He is actually its founder, chairman, and majority owner; we regret the error as well as understating his stake in the gym business.