RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — Virginia is one of the few East Coast states that does not require those exercising in a gym to wear masks. However, commonwealth officials maintain that it is in residents’ best interest to wear a face-covering while working out, regardless of whether it is expressly written in an Executive Order.
Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and North Carolina all mandate the wearing of face coverings while exercising indoors, while many gym owners in Georgia and Florida have taken it upon themselves to require patrons to wear masks when they workout.
Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Office of Environmental Health Services Director Julie Henderson says that while Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72 allows for exceptions to mask-wearing in certain business sectors, like when customers are seated and eating and drinking in a restaurant, patrons who exercise in a gym in the commonwealth should strongly consider wearing a face covering while they exercise.
“We know when you’re respirating, you’re breathing out, that’s how the virus is transmitted,” Henderson said. “Just because it’s not specifically written into the law that someone has to do it [wear a mask] while they’re exercising, we are strongly encouraging people to wear a mask when they’re at the gym.”
Henderson says the mask mandate for those exercising indoors is not written in an Executive Order to allow for exceptions, such as lifeguards who risk a choking hazard if they are wearing a mask and it gets wet.
However, even when wearing a mask, Henderson says those exercising indoors should maintain 10 feet of social distance from other gym patrons, not just six feet.
“When you’re exercising, generally, you’re respirating harder, you’re breathing out and expelling at a greater distance, and so that’s the reason for that 10 feet of space,” she said.
The thought of wearing a mask while participating in strenuous exercise may seem daunting, but Henderson says it will not impact the ability to breathe.
“There is a fair amount of research about whether or not wearing a mask decreases your oxygen, and we have no evidence to see that; same thing with while you’re exercising,” she said.
However, masks are meant to be restricted to prevent the spread of coronavirus. If exercising while wearing a face-covering becomes too challenging, Henderson recommends switching the workout, instead of taking off the protective mask.
“In all walks of life, people are having to change what they do, and it’s kind of wrapping your head around that and how you do it,” she said. “If you are at the gym and you’re running and you feel like you just can’t wear that mask, there is an allowance, there is an exception for it. Our advice would be to walk, do something different. We want you to exercise, we want you to be healthy and active. At the same time, we know we’re fighting this virus.”
While Virginia health officials only strongly recommend the wearing of face masks while exercising, they are required by law when otherwise moving about an indoor fitness center.
“When you get off of the equipment and you go to walk around, you have to have your mask on,” Henderson said. “When you are in the locker room, wear your mask; walking through space, wear your mask, any time like that.”
For those who do wear a mask while exercising, VDH says it’s even more important to wash it.
“Wearing a mask is the best thing you can really do to protect yourself and your neighbor and your community,” Henderson said. “You can tell that you’re respiring into the mask because it tends to get damp, and so we definitely recommend, if you wear one to the gym while you’re exercising, to wash it between uses.”
As for which mask to wear while exercising, Henderson recommends a face covering with at least two layers, although she tells WFXR’s sister station that health experts are starting to encourage people to wear face coverings with three layers for extra protection.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order expressly states which types of face coverings are acceptable in gyms, prohibiting the use of bandanas, buffs, or gaiters as masks while exercising.
Henderson says face coverings should be fitted — face shields are not sufficient.
“Just do the best we can to continue to fight this virus until we get that vaccine completely rolled out and we’re out of this pandemic,” Henderson said. “Historically, the governor has said in the Executive Orders that at a gym, at a fitness center, while playing sports, that participants do not need to wear a mask. His push has really been to strongly encourage it and support it.”