DC health director rejects gym owners’ calls to loosen mask mandate

Gym owners called on the D.C. Council Thursday to “work alongside us to save D.C. fitness businesses” and slammed the “unfair and overly restrictive policies instituted” by District leaders in response to the pandemic.

But their pleading for the city to give gyms and fitness studios a reprieve from the indoor mask mandate was met with a hard line denial from the director of DC Health.

In a webinar with Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray, Bryan Myers, CEO and president of SolidCore, said the D.C. fitness industry has “been absolutely decimated by the COVID-19 crisis” and that the mask mandate continues to cause harm to their businesses.

“Did you know that the fitness industry has lost roughly 25% of all businesses permanently since the start of the pandemic?” Myers asked. “Did you know that the fitness industry is the only hard-hit industry that hasn’t received targeted relief from our government, unlike restaurant, performance venues and so many others. Our industry is truly hurting and we need your support.”

Myers said he has tried to reach out to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office as well as DC Health, but hasn’t heard back.

He and other gyms in the District drafted a letter early in October asking officials to examine available data and reconsider the mask mandate as it applies to gyms. They urged city leaders to drop the mask mandate for gyms if the facilities required COVID-19 vaccination for all guests.

Myers said on the Thursday call that the letter “was not even dignified with an acknowledgment of receipt.”

“Across the 10 organizations represented in that letter, we collectively inject millions, if not tens of millions of dollars into the District economy in the form of hundreds of team members that we employ, many of whom are women, people of color and or LGBTQ; millions of dollars in collective rent that we pay to D.C.-based landlords and, of course, the taxes that we contribute to the District,” Myers said.

He called it “sad that the mayor’s office and the Department of Health have not even bothered to directly respond to a letter that we sent four weeks ago.”

“And it makes no sense that you can be at a maximum capacity show at The Anthem, which DC Health allows,” Myers said, holding up an image allegedly of maskless concertgoers, “however, a 15-person fitness class where everyone’s vaccinated, and people are not allowed to be there without having a mask on. It just doesn’t make logical sense.”

When Gray asked Health Director Dr. Laquandra Nesbitt if anything could be done to help, she said she was not inclined to spend more time responding to the industry that she said won’t accept an answer it doesn’t like.

“I’m a little challenged to make them comfortable because I think, as an industry, I get the most letters from them. They’re often accusatory, factually inaccurate and somewhat bullying,” Nesbitt told Gray.

Despite testimony from multiple gym and studio owners that echoed Myers’ concerns about the industry, Nesbitt said she does not plan to make any mask exceptions for gyms.

“How can I say to a gymnasium that, ‘Yeah, while y’all are in the gym, blowing air all on each other, sweat and breathing hard, you can take your mask off because you don’t like it, but I’m gonna still require it in schools?’ I’m still going to require it in restaurants, etc.

When I feel that the District is in a good enough place and we have enough of our vulnerable residents, including our children, 5 to 11 who have a degree of personal protection, then I’ll make the recommendation to the mayor to remove the indoor mandate. OK, is that clear?” Nesbitt said rhetorically.

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She did not respond in the hearing to gym owners’ assertions that masks are not needed in vaccinated populations.

David von Storch, founder of VIDA Fitness, testified that vaccines, not mask mandates, are the solution.

VIDA implemented a “proof of vaccination” requirement back in August.

“Jurisdictions with vaccination requirements and no mask mandates are experiencing a steady decline in case rates,” von Storch said, citing New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco as cities where the case rates have dropped to either equal to D.C. or lower.

He said data show that gyms are not a source of community spread.

“Why? Simply put, fitness centers are wide-open and well-ventilated spaces. People do not congregate in fitness centers like they do in restaurants and bars, but rather spread out naturally to give themselves room for the fitness and strength routines,” von Storch said.

He said he has asked DC Health for the metrics that would prompt the indoor mask mandate to be dropped.

“We’re not getting any of those answers. Montgomery County, it was very transparent what the metrics were for mask removal. We’re not even getting that,” von Storch said.

Arees Siddiqui, representing Orangetheory, also said he’s not getting data from DC Health officials. He said that a health representative “didn’t have any scientific evidence, didn’t have any data.”

“So all we’re asking is, just use scientific evidence in any of their sort of requirements that they enforce on us,” Siddiqui said. “Share the metrics. Department of Health, please let us know. Where do we need to get to before we can take off these masks?”

Siddiqui said that, like other gyms, they’ve “not gotten a single response.”

“We’ve tried to reach out to the administration and we’ve not gotten any response.”

Nesbitt said her days of writing detailed responses and spending hours responding to businesses is behind her, that she’s “out of that bandwidth now.” Nesbitt said she has responded to gym owners previously.

“I responded back, provided very clear data, which only sparked a flurry of more letters from them … not using factual information, assailing points and being more forceful. And this type of engagement will just go on and on. And so I disengage, which then drives them back to you to force me to engage,” Nesbitt said to Gray.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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