ITHACA, N.Y.—Since gyms have reopened after shutdowns due to COVID-19, protocols have fluctuated depending on the latest variants and levels of community spread.

New York State has wavered with its requirements for gyms, enacting mask mandates that deteriorated as vaccines became widely available only to be re-enacted months later due to new variants and increased cases.

In a collegetown like Ithaca, with a population that doubles when students are in town for fall and spring semesters, on-campus gyms were hesitant to reopen, presumably to reduce their liability, despite data proving that gyms have not been culprits of spreading the disease thanks to safety measures put in place.

Ithaca has five private gyms that have historically catered mostly to locals, plus the Ithaca College and Cornell University’s fitness centers.

The two colleges combined have more facilities than there are private gyms, but most of them weren’t easily accessible (or accessible at all), so private gyms became the place to turn for students who wanted to work out.

For Lara Dunn, owner of The Gym, membership demographics have changed dramatically since 2019, when the general local population made up three-quarters of her regular members. Upon reopening in August 2020, that had flipped: 90% of members were undergraduate students, including athletes, with just 10% being her local regulars.

Planet Fitness is another gym in the area that college students have been drawn to, albeit anecdotally. Because of the cheap membership prices and proximity to Cornell as well as not requiring a mask, the appeal makes sense.

When gyms in New York were allowed to reopen near the end of 2020, colleges in Ithaca didn’t follow suit, leaving even their athletes in the lurch by not opening campus gyms or training facilities. This often meant that whole teams would take over local gyms because schools hadn’t provided a training space, which left little space or equipment for other members to use.

Dunn said she was frustrated by how colleges handled their facilities, particularly pertaining to the athletes they weren’t providing on-campus training spaces for.

“Do I think the schools could have done a better job? Absolutely. Do I think they should have taken care of their athletes? I absolutely do. I had a feeling they were going to limit their liability, and I understand the reasons behind it, but what that ended up doing was opening the liability to the general population gyms in the area,” she said.

Masks also played a potential role in encouraging students to leave campus for exercise: most private gyms followed state guidance that fluctuated with local infection rates and case numbers, but colleges gyms continually required masks.

When the Ithaca College Fitness Center reopened in February 2021, it required gym-goers to schedule 45-minute “appointments” and book any equipment they wanted beforehand. Now, a year and a couple variants later, occupancy has returned to normal but the mask policy holds firm.

Ithaca College senior Kiana Telano said that on top of masks, everyone who works out is encouraged to keep the recommended 6-foot distance from others. “The big thing was that [students] were able to come in without scheduling the pods or racks. When the gym was closed people went to other gyms, but I know people canceled their memberships when we reopened.”

Cornell University didn’t open its fitness facilities to the general student population until the fall 2021 semester. Currently, masks continue to be required for students while they exercise.

“For the most part, everyone just has to wear a mask. Athletes don’t actually have to when we’re doing sports-related stuff, which has been kind of nice,” said senior Chloe Young, a member of the women’s rowing team. “It was definitely nice for people to be able to come in and have that stress relief option, at least that’s how I felt.”

Dunn is grateful for the students and locals alike who have continued to use her facilities throughout the uncertainty of the past year and a half but looks forward to regaining some of her community members when they feel comfortable returning. “It’s a mentally stressful time, there’s nothing better than to go to a gym to relieve that. I was happy to provide that because I think it’s necessary.”

According to a study done by The Global Health and Fitness Association (IHRSA), 27% of fitness facilities had closed in 2021 despite a June 2021 survey finding that 50% of previous members planned to return to their gyms by the end of 2021.

New studies have also proven that exercise can help reduce the risk of severe COVID cases — we’ve always known that it is one of the best things you can do for physical and mental health. Additionally, the IHRSA study found that only about 43% of adults were hitting the federal guidelines for physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

New York State just dropped its indoor mask-or-vax mandate, with the exception of some types of places including healthcare facilities and schools. Many businesses in Ithaca have either continued to ask customers to mask up or have taken down mask signs altogether, and private gyms have mostly dropped mask restrictions as soon as the state allowed it. Campus gyms are likely going to require them for some time to come, though.

Steve Brandt, general manager at Island Health and Fitness, declined to comment, and Planet Fitness did not respond.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...