At least 141 people have contracted COVID-19 in connection to an outbreak at a gym in Quebec City, the regional health authority confirmed Thursday.
The outbreak at Mega Gym 24H has led to 21 more outbreaks at workplaces, according to the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale.
The CIUSSS ordered the gym closed on Wednesday morning for violating sanitary protocols. Despite the order, the facility remained open until about 3 p.m. That's when Quebec City police showed up to shut the place down.
Late last week, the gym's administration encouraged patrons to get tested if they had visited the facility anytime after March 14 because they might have been exposed to a person who is suspected of having a variant of COVID-19.
Since then, the number of cases traced back to the gym has tripled, as patrons unknowingly spread the disease to family, friends and coworkers — surpassing the number of people affected by the outbreak at Kirouac bar in September when about 80 people got sick.
Owner has history of defying provincial orders
Dan Marino, owner of Mega Gym, has not responded to requests for comment. Marino has been a vocal opponent of gym closures throughout the pandemic, rallying other fitness centre owners to his side as he pushed for reopening.
He opened his gym in defiance of provincial regulations back in June, attracting police and media to his door.
In the past, Marino has also shared social media posts that question the effectiveness of masks and minimize the dangers of the novel coronavirus.
Now his Facebook page is being bombarded with angry comments as people blame him for the provincial government's decision to close all non-essential businesses, including gyms, in Quebec City until at least April 12.
Lévis and Gatineau are included in the lockdown order as health officials work to fend off the rapid spread of variants in these three cities.
On Thursday afternoon, Marino made a lengthy post defending his efforts to follow public health regulations — disinfecting equipment, wearing masks and keeping a safe distance.
"Now is not the time for bashing businesspeople like me and others who are trying to make their businesses survive and keep as many people employed as possible," Marino wrote. "We're not perfect. No one is. But we're doing our best."
Marino said he is affected by COVID not just as a businesses, but also as a human.
"My health is improving," he wrote.
Bad press or bad guidelines?
The Mega Gym incident is giving bad press to all the other fitness centres in the province that are strictly adhering to the province's protocols in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, says kinesiologist Gabriel Hardy.
He owns Le Chalet gym in Quebec City and heads the province's chapter of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada
"It's a shame because it makes our industry seem like an industry that is not united and that is not capable of implementing protocols," said Hardy, calling the situation at Mega Gym 24H an isolated incident.
However, epidemiological experts say gyms are a high-risk setting as COVID-19 is largely spread through airborne respiratory droplets and aerosols.
"When you're in the gym, you're sweating, you're breathing heavily and all of that increases the risk of transmission," said Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
A similar, widespread outbreak in an Ontario spin studio last fall led to more than 70 infections. After the virus infected family, friends and other contacts, provincial health officials were forced to take a hard look at rules for fitness centres.
"Even though they followed guidelines, there was obviously significant transmission," said Ontario's Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe at the time.
Also last fall, transmission of the novel coronavirus at a gym in Surrey, B.C., led to at least 42 cases of COVID-19, according to health officials there.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been outbreaks connected to gyms across Canada and the United States.
To gym or not to gym, that is the question
Citing the improving COVID-19 situation in Quebec, the government allowed gyms to reopen in the Montreal area on March 26, despite it still being a red zone.
Gyms in the rest of the province were allowed to reopen on March 8 but the sudden rise of COVID-19 variants has forced the government to roll back that decision in some areas.
Regardless, people can still work out in the Montreal area and that's surprising to people like Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in the city.
She walks by her gym often, dismayed to see people running on the treadmill inside without a mask on because, with variants on the rise, the risks are higher than ever, she said.
These variants, like the one first detected in the United Kingdom, are more transmissible in closed environments, she said.
"There are people working out on cardio machines without masks and it's perfectly by the rules, but it's just such a high-risk activity," said Kakkar.
"We really have to be cautious and think about what is really essential for people's core well-being, versus what is not so essential and try to restrict there."