October 20, 2021

Boston rejects gym owners’ petition for mask mandate exemption

Table of Contents “Mask mandates hit our attendance more severely than any other industry.”Newsletter Signup…

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“Mask mandates hit our attendance more severely than any other industry.”

Steven Senne / AP, File

Arguing that mask mandates hit their industry harder than any other, some Boston gym owners have been asking Acting Mayor Kim Janey to allow them to stray from the city’s rules and allow vaccinated customers to exercise without a face covering.

But for now, the city isn’t budging.

In a recent online petition, gyms owner asked for a waiver from the universal indoor masking rules if they require all attendees to be vaccinated or check vaccine cards and require unvaccinated customers to stay masked.

“Due to the increased difficulty in breathing while exercising, mask mandates hit our attendance more severely than any other industry,” reads the petition, which has garnered just over 1,000 signatures in 10 days.

“Additionally, mask mandates severely discourage many from working out regularly, which has a number of proven negative health related repercussions including weight gain, elevated stress, and mental health deterioration,” it adds.

At the same time, the combination of heavy breathing and sometimes poor ventilation has made gyms and fitness studios a higher risk environment for COVID-19 transmission when masks aren’t universally required.

Experts say that vaccination significantly changes the risk calculus. However, amid a delta variant-fueled rise in cases and hospitalizations, Boston and a number of neighboring cities reimposed mask mandates for most indoor public places, requiring everyone to wear a face covering regardless of vaccination status.

A group of gyms in Washington, D.C., unsuccessfully pushed for a similar exemption last month, after the district reimposed its own indoor mask mandate. And it appears the echoes of those calls in Boston are destined for a similar fate.

Janey’s office signaled Monday that she has no plans to give gyms a carveout.

“Boston’s indoor mask mandate helps slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant among vaccinated people, as well as unvaccinated people,” a city spokesperson told Boston.com in a statement.

“Mayor Janey will continue to follow public health data, support local businesses, and ask everyone to do their part in Boston’s recovery, reopening, and renewal from the ongoing pandemic,” the statement added.

The petition contends that “many” Boston gyms “will not survive” the city’s indoor mandate. City officials say the mandate will remain in effect until Boston has “a consistent downtrend” in COVID-19 rate and the city’s community transmission levels are downgraded.

“The week after the mandate went into place, it was [a] pretty obvious drop-off — around 20 percent,” Becca Skudder, the founder of MyStryde fitness studios in Boston, told the Boston Herald, which first reported the petition Friday.

According to the petition, continued mask mandates will cause revenue and attendance — already down 50 percent from 2019 — to drop another 25-35 percent as fall approaches. It also says that 28 percent of fitness businesses in Massachusetts have already gone out of business during the pandemic, compared to about 20 percent of restaurants.

The petition, which also lists Gov. Charlie Baker as a recipient, also asks local and state officials to create a targeted relief grant program for the fitness industry, similar to the federal COVID-19 funds made available for restaurants.

While no such program has been made specifically for the fitness industry, small fitness, wellness, and recreation businesses can apply for Boston’s recently reopened Small Business Relief Fund 2.0.

According to Janey’s office, companies with less than 25 workers can apply for grants of up to $20,000 to help cover payroll, fixed expenses, and growth. Applications opened on Sept. 8.

Kim Janey rejects Boston gym owners’ request for exemption from city’s mask mandate