New statewide rules from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office are pushing fitness centers and yoga studios to reconfigure their physical spaces — and refocus on their reasons for being.
First, the numbers: Until this week, people in Clallam and Jefferson counties were allowed to exercise indoors in groups of five or fewer, provided they stayed 6 feet apart. Social distancing, along with masks and frequent sanitizing, are key practices toward slowing the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected some 65,000 people in Washington state and more than 5 million nationwide.
On the North Olympic Peninsula, several gyms and yoga centers — such as Port Townsend’s Madrona MindBody Institute and Mystic Monkey and Port Angeles’ Poser Yoga — reopened in June, welcoming students to small classes.
Last week Inslee announced changed rules for them all: As of Monday, exercisers needed 300 square feet of space to themselves. They must stay 17 feet apart.
Studio owners around the state began circulating an online petition calling for a return to the 6-foot rule. By Sunday, the petition had gathered some 13,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, Poser Yoga and Madrona MindBody’s owners spent the past few days rearranging their spaces to accommodate five students, each 17 feet apart. But Mystic Monkey owner Jason Calsyn announced he would close his studio to in-person classes.
“In my space, [the new rule] means three people,” he said.
Like other fitness centers, Mystic Monkey offers classes outdoors and online, but Calsyn doesn’t see those sustaining his business indefinitely.
Calsyn believes Inslee changed the rule because of pressure from “big box” fitness companies, gyms whose owners complained about the five-person rule.
Some studio owners express exasperation, saying the new 17-foot requirement isn’t based on science.
“All we want is fair treatment,” the petition reads.
“I have not seen a published rationale for the distance change,” said Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke.
So he explained: If you’re working out vigorously indoors, even with a mask on, you’ll expel increased respiratory droplets and aerosols, which can spread the coronavirus.
Governor’s office spokesman Mike Faulk later added that when people are breathing harder and moving their limbs, “there just needs to be a bigger buffer” around them.
“It’s getting more and more challenging to serve our community,” said Jenny Stewart Houston, owner of Poser Yoga in Port Angeles.
“Yet we charge on. We’re determined to make it work, no matter what,” she said, adding that when the studio reopened June 8 to in-person classes, students brought their intense gratitude with them.
Like other local studios, Poser has been offering live-streamed and video on-demand yoga for months now, and with summer’s arrival, outdoor classes are happening, too.
“We understand the need for all these changes. We’re about health and safety,” said Madrona MindBody co-owner Renee Klein.
But with her facility offering just about half its normal schedule of classes — many of which are online — “people are really missing their tribe,” she said.
“That connection of community is really important.”
At her center in Fort Worden State Park, yoga, dance-fitness and spinning classes are held outdoors with five people maximum. Indoors, a handful of students practice yoga in the 2,200-square-foot ballroom. Yogis and dancers also take Madrona classes via the Zoom online platform.
Port Angeles and Sequim’s YMCA fitness centers, which just reopened this week, are following the new distance guidelines and allowing only half the normal building capacity, said spokesperson Erin Hawkins.
“We are doing this by requiring all members to make a reservation for the times they want to come,” she said, “so we can keep track of how many people are in the building.”
Locke, meanwhile, urges people who see the state’s requirements “as a bunch of oppressive rules” to consider the larger issue.
“This is an infectious disease emergency that we, as a nation and a state, are failing to control,” he said. “That’s the real reason the standards are becoming more restrictive.”
“The national picture is hopeless without a political reset,” Locke added. “Washington state can do a lot better, but is not. People are tired of the restrictions and are ignoring or actively defying them,” by not wearing face masks and by being careless about masking and social distancing with friends.
He also sees people wearing the clear face shields, which don’t adequately protect people from the virus.
“What they don’t get is that failure to ‘crush the curve’ has all kinds of ramifications — closed schools, local outbreaks, more restrictions on business activities, higher mortality,” Locke said, noting that the death toll in the country is likely to reach 300,000 by year’s end.
“We’ve been through the wringer,” said Poser’s Houston.
It’s community and yoga that keeps people going, she believes, through the pandemic-induced rollercoaster of rules, phasing plans and emotions.
“I’m so grateful that my business is my passion,” Houston said.
“This is what I love to do; what I love to share.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.