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Gym in the Pandemic: A Sweaty, Maskless Nightmare

Halloween might be over, but if you’re still looking for a real life horror experience, try visiting the gym these days. On a normal day, the gym is a breeding ground for germs. The gym in the pandemic is, despite the ostensible social distancing and hygiene rules, perhaps even more revolting. No number of videos sent out by the gym’s CEO (in order to tell me how safe it is now) will convince me that the second wave isn’t going to thrive in the chaos I witnessed when I attempted to go back to the gym yesterday.

I’m not going to name names, because I can only assume that the sweaty pandemonium I encountered at my gym is present in all of them, but I can say with fairly strong conviction that not much is being done to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the gym. This despite the fact that South Africa’s new COVID-19 cases – and in fact those all over the world – are steadily rising once again.

In order to really investigate the situation, I went back to my gym twice this week – once at peak time, and once when it’s usually relatively quiet. Here’s what I discovered.


Nobody wears masks

You’d think that when they’re breathing extra heavily, people would be a little more concerned about the potentially infected respiratory droplets they’re ejecting into the room around them (and you). You’d be wrong.

Apparently, you only need to wear your mask when stepping through the doors of the gym. Once you’re in and past the front desk, you and everyone else in this magical fitness bubble can’t be touched by the virus. None of the equipment has been moved any further apart than it was before the pandemic, so while you’re killing yourself on the elliptical, you’re also breathing all over the people on the treadmills around you – and who knows what that could do to them – with your mask hanging casually around your neck, as useless as a waterproof teabag.

gym in the pandemic

Nobody remembers social distancing

What my gym neglected to tell me in their “We’re Safe, Please Come Back” video, was that the gym was also infused with an ancient and powerful magic that causes all who enter it to completely forget that we should be maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres apart.

In fact, the men in the dumbell section – biceps popping, sweat dripping, and of course maskless – were practically sliding all over each other as they craned their necks to stare at themselves in the mirror. I barely escaped after noticing, perhaps a little too late, that my corner of the room was slowly being encroached on by more and more of the creatine-buzzed beasts as they lumbered into my personal space.

It is indeed a strong force that could so perfectly wipe their memories of the virus that still permeates all our media and social behaviours (sort of).

Nobody cleans up after themselves

Perhaps it’s because I spent a few years living in the orderly, collectivist country of Japan, but I naively walked into the gym thinking that people would clean up after themselves if they decide to gym in the pandemic. After all, the weights marinading in their sweaty palms are going to be used by other people, aren’t they?

The reality is that I didn’t see a single other person wipe down the equipment they used when they were finished using it – and yes, I was looking. Are they assuming someone else is going to do it or are they trying out a subtle brand of bio-terrorism?

While I admit that it’s a massive improvement that the gym has provided so many bottles of sanitiser (which, by the way, was standard practice in Japan well before 2020), it seems like people aren’t as excited as I am to use it.

I’ve often heard is said that white South Africans don’t know how to clean up after themselves ( and a large portion of my fellow gym-goers fall into this category). If you need any more proof of this, just look at how they nonchalantly discard their dumbbells wherever they used them. If it was thoughtless and bordering on rude before, now it’s just barbaric.


As previously mentioned, I attempted this perilous mission twice. Once at 11am, and once at 17:00.

The gym at 11:00 was…okay. I was constantly aware of the fact that none of the windows can open, and that nobody was touching the sanitiser bottles and paper, but it was fine. There was room for me to duck away from all of the other sweaty gym bunnies that passed me. I managed to get a treadmill on the far end of the room where I hoped the second wave couldn’t splash all over me.

The gym at 17:00, though, was honestly terrifying. I barely remember it being that full even before the pandemic. It’s like people want to get sick and make others sick too.

What was more terrifying was the fact that nobody even seemed to care. Does human life mean so little that even if we know that 2.7% of the people we breathe on might die and a much higher percentage will experience long-term debilitating disease, we feel nothing about doing so anyway?

2.7% sounds like a small number, but with the rate that this infection spreads, it really isn’t that inconsequential. 1.2 million people have already lost their lives. The argument of “but I don’t have coronavirus” doesn’t fly either, as so many (fortunate) people don’t experience symptoms, or simply haven’t started experiencing them by the time they infect those around them.

I’m so tired of hearing people speak as if my life, the life of my parents, the lives of the millions of people who have already passed away on account of this virus, mean nothing. The only way this disease and this virus that carries it can be slowed and, yes, even stopped, is if everyone behaves as if they’re infected – And that starts with each and every individual, including you and me.

I’ll probably go to the gym again now and then. Definitely not at 17:00, and most certainly keeping my mask on my face at all times, but honestly, I feel a lot more comfortable staying home and working out on my own. At least I know that here I’m not surrounded by selfish, narrow-minded assholes or their germs.

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