Flashpoint fitness: Quebec gyms face fines for defying government orders to close

Fitness clubs have become a flashpoint in the ongoing pandemic closures and, in Quebec, some gyms vow to defy government orders by reopening this week.

Others argue their service of keeping people well should be declared essential.

At CrossFit 819 in Gatineau, QC., owner Shane Miller wants his 275 gym members to stay fit; however, continued pandemic restrictions create challenges. His gym is in part of a red-zone. Miller was ordered to close on Oct. 10. 

"People come to the gym and they think of the goals that are on the top of their head… lose weight, get stronger," says Miller, "but really, it's to feel batter within yourself so that you can be happier in your life."

During the first round of closure in March, Miller found that when his members returned, their mental health was suffering, which is why he was thinking about defying government regulations for this latest closure and remain open. 

"I felt that there would be people starting to do this and that, there might be a chance that we could win," he said.

A coalition of nearly 200 fitness professionals who operate businesses in red zones say they will reopen their doors this week, despite orders to remain closed, unless the Quebec government can prove that their facilities are linked to COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The coalition is called the Centre's d'activités physiques du Québec and is made up of dance studios, gyms, martial arts clubs and yoga studios. 

Premier François Legault announced extended lockdowns in Quebec's red zones until November 23. The coalition plans to reopen Thursday, which would have been one after the initial lockdown ended. Legault warned there would be consequences, saying police would not only fine the businesses for operating, but also the clients who used them.

The Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FICC), which represents more than 700 centres across the country, says the coalition should not be promoting breaking the law and owners who choose to open their gyms will see the door closed to government assistance. 

"Gyms are not just for aesthetics, they are more for prevention," says Quebec FICC leader, Gabriel Hardy. "They are giving something to the population that prevents chronic disease, prevents depression, and we're a good solution to many, many disease and problems."

The FICC represents nearly one-third of Quebec's fitness centres and says acts of defiance make it seem that the entire industry can be hard to work with and that they need support now, and when the pandemic is over to help rebuild. 

They have been lobbying government to raise awareness that fitness is essential to many individuals' mental health and should be deemed so. Their hope is to work alongside governments to show that the risk of COVID-19 exposure is low and the benefits far outweigh it. 

Miller agrees with the FICC, even if it means short-term pain. He ultimately chose to remain closed. He is offering online classes and has loaned nearly all of his gym equipment to his members.

The long-term gain is helping others stay healthy and keeping his gym profitable. 

"I definitely want to keep my business alive but not at the expense of not being able to help people," Miller said.