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Some Local Gyms Defy Ban on Indoor Operations

Days after Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine put new temporary restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including a mandate prohibiting gyms from operating indoors, Victory Sports & Fitness in College Township remained open for people to get their reps in.

It was one of a handful of gyms that were disobeying the state’s order in the State College area.

Victory Sports & Fitness owner Jackie Oshinski said she decided to stay open because, despite the governor’s orders, she feels her club is safe and says science backs that up. She said the gym followed through with the first shutdown when people were unsure about the impacts of the virus, but said she was dismayed when it dragged on longer than expected.

“Financially, it was very difficult,” said Oshinski, noting she had several employees who didn’t receive any unemployment compensation during the last shutdown, and the burden was “difficult to bear.” This time, the gym decided to carry on.

The mandate — which began on Dec. 12 and is in place until Jan. 4— included restrictions on in-person dining, indoor and outdoor gatherings, capacity limits for businesses, entertainment industries and schools, along with the prohibition for indoor gym and fitness facilities to stay open. It took effect as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to rise across the state.

On Tuesday, State College Mayor Ronald Fillippelli and President of the State College Borough Council Jesse Barlow made a statement in support of Wolf’s efforts. The statement said:

“We would like to commend their efforts to take the necessary steps to protect our community. As hospitalizations continue to rise and we experience community spread locally, these efforts help our community members. We commend their efforts to utilize a science and researched-based approach to these mitigation orders.

“We understand that local businesses are once again feeling the negative impacts of these new mitigation efforts. We want to ask our community members to help support these businesses throughout these next three weeks by ordering take-out, writing a positive review of the business and/or sharing a post on social media about a business, and mask up and to physically visit those businesses still safely open. Please shop small and support our local businesses throughout this trying time.

“Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Levine have taken a strong first step in helping our health care system and workers get through this difficult time. These workers have been working tirelessly to care for our community members in need; however, these mitigation efforts alone will not help stop the spread.

“We are asking that you stay at home as much as possible, wear a mask, physically distance, and practice good health habits like washing your hands. It will take everyone in our community and surrounding areas to stop the local spread of COVID-19.”

As they were doing before the latest orders, employees at Victory take the temperatures of those entering the facility and require masks to be worn while inside by those who are medically able to do so. Social distancing is required, as the facility is operating at a fraction of its capacity.

Oshinksi said it uses NASA-approved, state-of-the-art sanitizer, which is also being used by the NFL. These sanitizers denature the protein of the cell for up to five hours, she said.

“Everyone who comes in here has to pass our criteria. They can’t be sick. They can’t be having symptoms,” Oshinski said.

She also cites a study sourced by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association that claims that there is a .0023 percent infection rate at gyms.

“Science is behind us,” said Oshinski. “With the science behind us, I know what we are doing and two weeks before Christmas our employees need a paycheck for their families. Our business is providing health and wellness and we are also basically a health-care provider. We have agreements with health insurance companies to provide this fitness and wellness.”

She added that when people work out, it benefits their immune system and helps them deal with stress. “If people do get the virus, they are going to recover better because they are working out,” she said, adding, “We are licensed, certified professionals. Everything is done by science here.”

Employee Danielle McHenry said that in addition to helping people with physical health, the gym provides a social place for many that boost their mental health as well, which is especially important right now.

“We are more than a gym. (We are) a staple in the community for many reasons, and not just for physical well-being. It is a mental well-being — improving your immune health. For a lot of people, we are family. Maybe they are a widow or a widower and maybe they don’t have anyone else, so they come in here for the social aspect,” McHenry said.

For all these reasons, Oshinski said she feels strongly she is making the right decision to stay open. Those, as well as the fact that her employees rely upon a paycheck to make ends meet.

The club did receive a visit from State College police on Monday after someone made a complaint. The police notified the gym that it was violating the order.

“We had a concerned citizen (call the police), who I am sure is getting a paycheck for Christmas, and he or she doesn’t work out probably and doesn’t understand the science,” Oshinski said.

She said it is concerning for her that other people would like to see them close, while they are able to continue working.

“This is tyranny from a perspective that nobody should be picking and choosing who is going to be open and who is not. We all have families to feed. We all have obligations,” Oshinski said.

Oshinski said she is not worried about fines or other implications from staying open.

“I answer to God, and God is my moral compass in correcting me. So, I am not going to stand back and allow this to continue. I am not going to see my employees go without paychecks. I saw that last time and me and my husband have been here for 17 years, building this business. We sacrificed a lot,” she said.

Levine said a recent study by Yale University that showed that closing businesses like gyms was among consistent policies to reduce fatality rates. Wolf said that the provisions were supported by data that supports why limiting gatherings, reducing occupancy, and temporarily suspending some activities, among other efforts, are considered vital to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Each of the last two days we have reported the highest number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic,” Levine said when announcing the new measures on Dec. 10. “In the past week, we have reported close to 1,100 new deaths from COVID-19 across Pennsylvania. The virus continues to strain our health-care systems and the dramatic rise in cases among all age groups, including among school-age children, is alarming. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been more than 37,500 cases among children age 5 to 18, yet 9,500 of those cases occurred in the past two weeks.”

Lt. Greg Brauser of the State College Police Department verified that officers contacted Victory concerning the situation, reminding them of the governor’s order. He said they are working with the township on any further action.

Brauser said the governor, in July, stressed to law enforcement agencies that education was the primary tool to be used concerning violation of mitigation efforts.

College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said ordinance 0-20-08, which was adopted on Sept. 29 by and set temporary COVID regulations, does not address the governor’s most recent order that includes the temporary closures of gyms, fitness centers and recreation centers.

“Because the College Township ordinance is silent on these matters, the ordinance cannot be used by the Township to enforce the Governor’s latest orders. College Township was very careful in crafting O-20-08 so that the regulations identified in that ordinance had the ‘force of law’ through a legislative process,” Brumbaugh said. ‘This means College Township cannot ask SCPD to enforce establishments that stay open utilizing the order that is in place.

“However, I have instructed the State College Police chief to respond to any complaint received and, if warranted, to issue citations based on the Pennsylvania Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 and the Pennsylvania Administrative Code of 1929. The fine under the 1955 law is no less than $25 nor more than $300 and the fine for the 1929 law is no less than $10 nor more than $50,” said Brumbaugh.