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Nicolais: Masks and muscles must coexist at the gym

Reintroduced mask mandates may be a burden, but that's a weight worth lifting as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase

Walking into the Lakewood 24 Hour Fitness for a pre-Thanksgiving workout Wednesday night, I noticed staff at the front desk dutifully informing patrons they needed to wear a mask upon entering. They even passed out masks to those who did not have one readily available.

Unfortunately, that is where it stopped. I spent the next hour watching people work out with masks dangling off their ears or slid below their noses. 

Worse? I saw one meathead who was wearing his mask as a chin-bra catch the eye of a disinterested gym employee, realize the employee did not care what he did with his mask, and subsequently strip it off and pocket it. As he continued his routine, several other members took note and began discarding their own face coverings.

Mario Nicolais

That is the way noncompliance with mask mandates works. Just like the virus they are supposed to protect against, once one destructive element enters an ecosystem it tends to spread rapidly. Furthermore, when effective countermeasures are not taken to combat the spread, the result can be dire.

By the time I left the gym, four or five (out of roughly 50) people were going entirely without masks. It is not a lot in raw terms, but given the increased respiratory rate induced by exercise and the dynamic movement between spaces of people at a gym — as opposed to a static restaurant seat — it can pose a substantial threat of infection.

After spending the better part of the past year working with COVIDCheck Colorado, I felt obliged to mention this to the staff as I left. I suggested that it would be beneficial for someone to walk around the premises every 20-30 minutes and remind people that Jefferson County required face coverings in public indoor places.

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Rather than acknowledge or follow up on my suggestions, the bearded staffer replied in contemptuous arrogance that, “we are in compliance with all our corporate requirements and do not need to.”

Well, actually … 

The JeffCo Public Health order, which supersedes any corporate policy, does require businesses to deny service to anyone not wearing a face covering on their premises. In context that means nobody should be lifting weights or taking classes or working on cardio without one.

My guess is that JeffCo regulators would take a dim view of the explanation provided to me. Given that Colorado hospital bed occupancy rates hit an all-time high recently, and JeffCo has watched as “cases and hospitalizations have a continued to increase sharply at very concerning rates” over the past few weeks, I think they would be particularly nonplussed by the statement provided to me.

The feeling is probably shared by doctors, nurses and other health care providers as Saint Anthony’s Hospital less than a mile away from my gym. After nearly two exhausting years, they are now bracing for a winter surge buttressed by the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

That said, I doubt it is the actual corporate policy. The evening front desk host is generally not the primary repository for corporate compliance. But the company does have an obligation to provide clear dictates to their employees. Especially when it is a company premised on improving its customers’ health.

I am not a fan of cancel culture and am not advocating for some backlash against my gym. I have belonged to 24 Hour Fitness for nearly two decades, and have no plan to stop going anytime soon. I just wish they would do better. It may be hard for companies and employees, but not impossible. 

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The same day I went to the gym, I also swung by the Belmar Core Power Yoga. They were adamant about masks for every customer despite the hot, humid conditions and an emphasis on breathing during practice.

From personal experience, I can attest that masks imposed on a sweaty hot yoga session are far more burdensome than anything at the gym. Yet, when one person threatened to cancel his membership, the staffer politely replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way and hope you’ll rejoin us when you can.”

Masks are uncomfortable and irritating. But just like any piece of exercise equipment, they are a tool that helps us to be stronger and healthier. After more than 773,000 Americans have died from this disease, it is a weight we should all be willing to lift.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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