Ontario gym using loophole to stay open now closed due to COVID-19 outbreak

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An Ontario gym operating using a physical therapy exemption has been ordered to shut down after being linked to a COVID-19 outbreak that could force as many as 400 people to self-isolate.

Halton Region Public Health said it is aware of 15 cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 linked to the Muscle HQ gym in Oakville, Ont.

Gyms across Ontario cannot currently offer indoor services due to public health restrictions, but Muscle HQ had been operating by allowing members with doctors' notes that cite the need for physical therapy to train.

"It is a great tragedy that there was an outbreak," Muscle HQ co-owner Ali Siddiqui said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press. "We take great pride in being able to provide a facility for the disabled population to perform their prescribed therapy, all while being in full compliance of regulations while doing so."

Despite gyms being closed to the general public, Halton public health said facilities providing sports and recreational fitness activities for people with disabilities to receive physical therapy can be open under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. However, they are only allowed to operate if the person has a doctor's note and if their physical therapy is not available elsewhere.

Halton public health said it officially declared the outbreak on June 28 after the case count rose to more than five. It then notified of owners on Friday to a forced closure of their facility for 14 days due to the number of cases linked to the gym.

Within 48 hours of the health unit's outbreak declaration, Siddiqui said "several cases" were identified. The health unit said there are more than 400 high-risk contacts who must quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure date, unless they are fully vaccinated.

It said all members who were in the gym the previous week would be considered as a high-risk, close contact.

The public health unit said it's worried about close contacts because they were indoors with "limited masking and lack of supervision" to make sure people followed physical distancing and capacity limits.

Contact tracing at Muscle HQ is ongoing, and more cases outside the initial exposure period of June 21 to July 3 are being found.

"These gym members may also be at higher risk for COVID-19 complications given that each person would have been required to provide written instruction from a qualified regulated health professional regarding their physical or mental disability to allow them to use the gym," the health unit said in a statement. "We are urging these individuals to isolate and get tested for their own well-being as well as for any other vulnerable people they may be living with."

Siddiqui said in a video message posted to Facebook that the first case tested positive on June 25. Two other members received positive results the next day, forcing owners to shut down the gym for 72 hours the gym to allow for deep cleaning and fogging.

"We contacted public health immediately to notify them of the cases and to provide them with contact tracing information," Siddiqui said. "A mass email was sent out to all club members as well on this day, letting them know of the potential exposure and to get tested."

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters at a press conference Wednesday morning that since the gym remained open during the pandemic, the Delta variant is now "circulating very widely" amongst those who use the facility.

She described the situation as a cautionary tale against reopening the province too quickly.

"We want to avoid a fourth wave. We don't want to have to move back a step," Elliott said. "We want to make sure that we are completely ready and able to move forward based on the expert advice that 1/2we're) receiving from our chief medical officer of health and all of the advisors from the various committees."

Jim Barry, Oakville's director of municipal enforcement services, said in an emailed statement that the town received "a number of complaints" about Muscle HQ and investigated them on multiple occasions, with the most recent being related to capacity limits on June 19.

"At that time and during previous visits, the gym was in compliance with the provincial regulations under the Reopening Ontario Act," Barry said.

So far, Siddiqui said he has not received a municipal fine and he is working with the health unit to determine a reopening date.

"We are confident that with guidance from public health, we will again be able to reopen with even more stringent policies in place to ensure that our members get the therapy they need, while also ensuring that our members and the community at large remain safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2021.