A little over 12 months ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson went on television and announced that bars, restaurants, hairdressers, leisure centres and gyms would have to shut their doors. Coronavirus was spreading through the UK and the world like wildfire and the only way to stop it was if these types of businesses – places that had been part of our daily lives but were suddenly deemed ‘non-essential’ – closed. Almost immediately, they fell into line, did their duty and shut their doors for the greater good.
It took until the 25th July before gyms in England were allowed to open again, and by that point they’d seen pubs, restaurants, takeaways and off-licences all get the green light to open before them.
Meanwhile, having lived through a lockdown, some gym owners decided that if the government ever ordered them to lock down again, they wouldn’t do it willingly.
“I predicted that another lockdown was coming, if you look at my videos on social media,” says Andreas Michli, owner of Zone Gym, London. “I put the message out there that if it happens, I’m not going to do it. I drew my line of what I accept as reasonable and that line was crossed.”
A second national lockdown did indeed come in November 2020, and Michli soon found his line being manned by police officers from all over London. Fines, which now amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, rained down on him like confetti. Speaking to Michli, he's adamant that it was worth every potential penny, and his members, who were literally scaling the walls to get inside his gym, clearly think he was in the right too. But can any objective observer really support the decision to keep gyms open?
Alex Lowndes, owner of Gainz Fitness and Strength, also took the decision to stay open during the second national lockdown in November. “Going back to the first one, we did close because we didn’t know what coronavirus was about,” says Lowndes. “In the second one we did, and we understood that obesity and general poor health had a large part to play. Coronavirus wasn’t just attacking anybody and everybody it was generally attacking people who were of poor health and we felt that gyms were crucial to standing up to it and any other viral threats that there might be in the future.”
Lowndes isn’t alone in thinking of the coronavirus pandemic as a health wake-up call. Having been taken into intensive care with coronavirus in early April 2020, Boris Johnson himself was said to be “obsessed” with tackling the nation’s weight and unveiled a new obesity strategy that included a ban on adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt shown before 9pm and the end of deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods.
As well as trying to impact peoples’ bodies, Lowndes also says he didn’t shut his gym at the beginning of the second national lockdown – a decision that like Michli brought police to his premises and resulted in thousands of pounds of fines – because of the toll closing was putting on his members mental health.
“I’ve got so many people in this gym that probably wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the gym,” says Lowndes. “I personally know members who have come close to ending their lives during this time, and I think that without the gym that was the reality.”
The impact locking down his gym was having on his members mental health was also one of the reasons why Michli decided he wasn’t going to close his gym’s doors too. “I saw the damage it did to people, mentally especially, and I just didn’t want to put them through that again.”
Dr Francis Dasilva participated in his last bodybuilding show in April 2019. He normally participates in a show about once a year, but standing on stage in a pair of shorts to be judged by others isn’t something that comes naturally to him. For him, bodybuilding is a tool that he uses to manage his own anxiety and depression, so he can understand when people say that not being able to go to the gym has had a huge detrimental effect on their mental health.
Like them, Dasilva’s missed training in the past year, he’s missed the camaraderie and he’s missed the results, but having worked within the NHS over the last 12 months, he can’t support gym owners who made the decision to stay open when the government ordered them to close.
“Being a junior doctor in the past, one of the things that you notice especially in the winter periods is how under strain the NHS is,” says Dasilva. “It’s horrible for staff, for patients and for relatives because patients are stacked up in corridors, there’s no space for them, and this is in a normal, everyday winter. Staff are so demoralised because you’re working as hard as you can, and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It almost feels like it’s going to break every year, so anything on top of that you feel that it’s going to buckle completely, and I think that was the fear from a lot of people in the NHS and probably from the powers that be as well.
“That’s why certain decisions were made, it’s because it couldn’t take the strain. Certain venues might have been safer than other venues, but it was a matter of numbers. Sometimes those extra numbers would have broken the system and we had to do everything we could to stop that from happening.”
To date, 127,000 people in the UK have died as a result of Covid-19. Gym owners who refused to close may have been doing what they thought was best for their members, both physically and mentally, but for Dasilva, to make such a big decision, to put members and the people they come into contact with at risk is something that he, as a medical professional, feels was wrong.
"None of us have all the data to hand," says Dasilva. "It's very hard for us to make such a big decision without having all the data."
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