Santa Maria gyms fail to enforce facemasks as coronavirus infections spike

By Joe Payne

As the coronavirus infection rate in Santa Maria continues to rise, several local gyms are lax on state-mandated face covering requirements for members.

When called and asked if visitors needed facemasks, staff at four prominent gyms along Broadway confirmed that customers could remove their masks once beginning workouts and were only required to wear them when entering and exiting the building.

At HWD Fitness, which re-opened on June 15, customers are asked to enter and exit with a mask and bring their own sweat towels and yoga mats.

“The mask is only required when you come in,” the staffer said over the phone. “Once you start working out you can remove it.”

At Western Village Health Club, wearing a mask isn’t a requirement when inside and exercising, “but as an establishment, we do have to recommend it,” an employee explained. At Planet Fitness, masks are required when entering, exiting, and “walking around” the gym, but not while exercising with equipment.

Planet Fitness in Santa Maria requires visitors to wear a facemask while entering, exiting, and “walking around” the facility, but not while exercising with equipment. Photo by Joe Payne

Since fitness centers were allowed to resume business in mid-June as Santa Barbara County entered Phase 3 of California’s reopening plan, local gyms have tried to balance the comfort of members with safety of staff and visitors. But according to the California Department of Public Health’s “Guidance for the Use of Face Coverings,” Californians must wear masks inside any public space. Exemptions don’t include those exercising indoors.

As more experts and researchers emphasize that COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets expelled from the mouth and nose that can stay airborne for some time, the prospect of indoor exercise may be a dangerous one. Those engaging in cardiovascular exercise breath heavily, and expel more breath into a shared space than they would otherwise. And without a face covering, the possibility of a “superspreader event” from an infected individual exercising around others is very real.

The term “superspreader” has come to explain incidents where a single individual infects a large number of people from one point of contact. A famous example was at a choir practice in Washington state during the early days of the pandemic. One singer, repeatedly opening their mouth and belting gusts of infected aerosols into the room, passed the virus to 52 choristers. Two of their fellow singers passed away.

Members at Western Village Health Club in Santa Maria exercise without state-mandated facemasks on the evening of July 7, 2020. Photo by Joe Payne

As Santa Barbara County continues to update its coronavirus numbers, the area that has emerged as a hotspot is the Santa Maria Valley, the most populous city in the county and the greater Central Coast. The overwhelming majority of newly reported cases continue to be from the Santa Maria area.

Serious outbreaks have been seen at a nursing home and among the city’s farmworker population. A few local restaurants closed for cleaning when a staff member tested positive just weeks after reopening. The county reported its 30th death from coronavirus on July 7, a 70-year-old from Santa Maria.

Santa Maria continues to have the highest concentration of new coronavirus cases in Santa Barbara County. Courtesy of Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso gave an update to the Board of Supervisors on July 7, and explained the spiking infection rate.

“The elevated number of cases in our community is directly attributed to the freedom of movement as we reopened sectors,” she explained, “which provided increased opportunities for social interactions and gatherings without social distancing and face covering.”

Across the entire county, there were nearly 400 active cases of coronavirus on July 7, Do-Reynoso said. The rising infection rate even before the holiday weekend saw Governor Gavin Newsom include Santa Barbara County among those the state recommended should close bars ahead of July 4. The county took the recommendation and ordered the closure of both bars and beaches with very little notice.

County officials continue to warn residents that not enough people are wearing face coverings when in public. While some businesses require facemasks before entering indoor areas, lax enforcement by staff and a lackadaisical attitude by visitors could mean more infections as the coronavirus crisis continues to escalate.

“Re-opening business does not mean the virus has been defeated, it means we are working to find a balance in our community until the virus is defeated,” Do-Reynoso said at the July 7 meeting. “Living with the virus established in our community means we must wear a mask and we must socially distance.”

“We have no other defense at this time. If we are to continue to reopen as a county, behavior must change.”

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

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