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Texas and Florida gyms reopen with more sanitizer, fewer customers and warnings of new outbreaks

A man exercises at Gold's Gym, one of the businesses that reopened after a shutdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Augusta, Georgia, April 26, 2020.

Joe Cirulli has spent thousands of dollars in enhanced cleaning and sanitation practices for his chain of Florida gyms. 

Cirulli, the founder of Gainesville Health and Fitness, said he's spent the last two and a half months since his business closed due to the coronavirus outbreak researching and preparing to meet, and go beyond, rigorous health standards implemented by the state when it lifted its statewide gym closure on Monday, he said. 

He ordered gallons of electrostatic cleaning supply to spray workout equipment daily, enough hand sanitizer and wipes to place throughout the entire gym and installed ultraviolet lighting in the air-conditioning systems to filter out additional bacteria, although health experts say UV lighting should not be used on people's skin. 

"We ordered everything, everything," Cirulli said. "I don't know how much more we can do, especially when the guy working on the air conditioning system told me if we do one more thing, we'll be able to do surgery inside our clubs." 

As some states across the country slowly begin to lift restrictions implemented to halt the spread of the coronavirus, gyms and other businesses prepare to operate under stringent new health restrictions. They've increased cleaning supplies, are checking temperatures at the door and encouraging members to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. While members are enthusiastic, some epidemiologists warn that the virus hasn't gone anywhere even as restrictions are reduced. 

States like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona have been given the green light to resume most operations with reduced occupancy and expanded safety rules.

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott allowed gyms to reopen Monday at 25% capacity with modifications, gym owners say they've stocked up on cleaning supplies in anticipation of returning crowds.

When members return to Dallas-based gym Trophy Fitness, the first thing that's required is a temperature reading, followed by a prepared statement recited by an employee on coronavirus symptoms, founder Kelley Gray said. The gym's locker rooms are still closed to patrons and there are no group workout classes. 

Cher Harris, the general manager of the Houstonian Club, a Houston-based hotel, spa and fitness facility that reopened on Monday, said the longest the club was ever closed before the coronavirus was during Hurricane Harvey when its doors were shut for nine days.

"From my personal standpoint, this is this is the toughest thing that I've ever gone through in my career," Harris said. 

The club has ordered nearly triple the amount of cleaning supplies they would typically use in a month to begin reopening, Harris said. Some items have been difficult to order, however, such as face masks for employees, she said.

Staff are required to wear gloves to handle towels and other materials, the club requires all members and employees to have a temperature check before entering and all furniture was moved 6 feet apart, she added. 

"It's like you're operating a completely different business," Harris said.

Although gyms are slowly coming back online, Gold's Gym CEO Adam Zeitsiff said that he expects the industry to take nearly six to nine months to recover from lost business due to the coronavirus. 

The fitness chain filed for bankruptcy on May 4. Gold's Gym plans to permanently close around 30 company-owned gyms, but its franchised locations will reopen as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Zeitsiff said while members in their company-owned and franchised gyms have adhered to health guidelines, it's taken one or two visits to the gym to become accustomed to working out in a mask, which the company recommends. 

"What we're seeing so far, people have been very respectful. They've been coming in the gyms. They're wearing their masks. They're working out," Zeitsiff said. 

Cirulli, who was able to open his gym on Monday at 50% capacity as part of Florida's eased lock-down restrictions, said members were lined outside the door ready to enter the gym on its reopening day. Gray also said Trophy Fitness members were happy to return on opening day, although he the gym didn't reach its full occupancy limit. 

"They're just saying thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. That's all you hear," Cirulli said. "The members are very excited that the clubs are open."

Epidemiologists warn, however, that the coronvirus still has room to spread and are worried about gyms and other public spaces reopening in their state too soon. 

"I think we need to remember that this is primarily a virus spread by airborne droplets that we breathe out in the air," said Cindy Prins, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida.

While the transmission of the virus may be manageable by wiping down surfaces, Prins said that people coughing into the air in a shared space like a gym or restaurant could spread Covid-19. Wearing a face covering while working out isn't required in Florida and many other states that have reopened gyms. 

"I miss the gym, I really want to go back. I'm not comfortable yet with that," Prins said. 

For those who have been infected, doctors still don't know whether a person with the virus' antibodies is immune to reinfection or for how long they could be immune, and the number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 is still a low portion of the population overall, Prins said. 

"We've still got it circulating within our community," she said. "And so as long as you have that situation of susceptibility with virus circulation, you're still going to get people who can get infected."

Catherine Troisi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, said that even a health safety measure like wearing a face covering, which health experts know works to stop the virus' spread, has become a political issue.

The state is seeing an end to the measures to control this virus for social and psychological reasons and, unfortunately, it's become very politicized, she said. 

Both Troisi and Prins said that the end of the epidemic and a return to life as it was before the Covid-19 outbreak likely can't occur before a vaccine is distributed. 

"Nothing has changed. The virus is still there. We don't have a vaccine. The only way we have of protecting ourselves are these non-pharmaceutical interventions," Troisi said. "This is not what we want to do if we want keep the numbers low."