'Completely unfair’: Small Ontario gym owners frustrated they must remain closed as dance studios reopen

Ontario is allowing dance classes to resume in COVID-19 hotspot areas, sparking frustration from small-gym owners who say they are being unfairly targeted by the government’s restrictions.

Dance studios in Toronto, Ottawa, and Peel and York regions are now permitted to teach classes such as ballet, hip-hop, and ballroom – although not Zumba, a dance-like aerobics – with a maximum of 10 students and two metres of physical distancing. Masks do not need to be worn while dancing, according to provincial guidelines.

The government argues that dance classes were wrongly lumped in with fitness facilities when Ontario closed gyms, along with indoor dining, earlier this month for at least 28 days to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The decision to reverse course on dance studios, on the same day the government recommended against outdoor trick-or-treating this Halloween in the four hotspot regions, has caused outcry from fitness facilities and demonstrates the challenge Ontario faces as it tries to justify its widespread closings to the public.

The offices of both Premier Doug Ford and Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, were bombarded with calls from dance studios after the closings and a petition garnered 25,000 signatures. After consulting with the chief medical officer of health, cabinet reversed the decision at a meeting on Monday.

Amy Hampton, executive director of Dance Ontario, which represents 700 professional companies, dancers and choreographers, said she was “thrilled” with the government’s reversal. “We’re very thankful that the government listened to dance studios,” she said, adding that dance will now be treated the same as other children’s activities such as gymnastics and cheerleading.

Mr. Ford said Tuesday the government is looking into the complaints of smaller boutique fitness centres, which offer classes comparable in size to those of dance studios. But he said fitness studios allow different people to attend classes, while dance studios teach the same cohort of students. However, small gyms say they can adapt to those requirements.

“I don’t think you can compare the dance studios with certain students over and over again, to fitness areas,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure I get these places opened up as soon as possible,” the Premier said.

As for why masks need not be worn in dance classes, Health Minister Christine Elliott said physical distancing can be maintained so masks “aren’t necessarily required.”

After an outbreak at a spin studio in Hamilton last month, Ontario’s associate medical officer of health, Barbara Yaffe, asked the province’s public health measures table to review and potentially revise the guidelines for gyms, which don’t require masks while exercising, but no decision has been made, Ms. Elliott’s office said.

Although gyms are closed in the four hotspot regions, they remain open in the rest of the province.

The allowance for dance doesn’t sit right with Alex Kucharski, director of the Ontario Independent Fitness Studio Association, who also owns a fitness studio in York region.

“It’s completely unfair that the government is basically choosing winners and losers at this point,” he said. “I would say that most fitness studios would follow the same restrictions as a dance studio … so why are fitness studios now being put into a different category?”

Adam McKinty, co-owner of CrossFit 6S in downtown Toronto, said boutique fitness owners haven’t been given the opportunity to talk to government about a safe way to reopen. He said many of the gym’s members have told him they felt safer in the facility than they did in a grocery store or mall.

“It’s been a struggle, not just financially, but emotionally. We’ve been hearing from our members that this was the one place that they had where they could get out of their house,” he said, adding that many people using the gym live in small condominiums. “It’s tough to see our members going through that.”

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital, said he believes in allowing activities to be done safely rather than cancelling them altogether. “This [move to reopen dance studios] has tremendous benefit for kids,” he said. Still, he said he believes masks should be worn.

“Masks would be extremely important in a setting like this.”

– with a report from Jeff Gray

This article first published here www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-completely-unfair-small-ontario-gym-owners-frustrated-they-must/