News Analysis

'Lives are on the line,' says Ontario gym owner who started petition to declare gyms essential

There is clear evidence mental health crisis has gotten worse as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, and gym owners like Christison are seeing this first hand.

Elie M. Cantin-Nantel The Post Millennial
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As the Ford government put Ontario's three most infected regions back into a partial lockdown, gym owners across the province are becoming worried about the physical and mental health toll the closure of their facilities could have on the community.

Last week, Premier Doug Ford announced he was putting Ottawa, Toronto, and Peel Region back into partial lockdown to try and slow the spread of COVID-19. The new lockdowns included the closure of indoor dining, museums, cinemas, and gyms.

Ford had said he would not shut down restaurants and gyms unless there was evidence they were a major cause of transmission. However, he changed course, and closed down businesses without providing any evidence to support the closures.

This prompted Jeffery Christison and his partner, Jesse Davidson, Anytime Fitness franchise owners, to start a petition urging the Ford government to reopen gyms in the three regions. The petition calls for Ontario to declare gyms essential services.

“This is about our community,” said Christison to The Post Millennial. “We've had members show up at our gyms, calling us, emailing us, begging for us to stay open. These are people in dire need.”

“They are in a state of panic because they just finished bouncing back from the impact that the first lockdown had on their physical, mental, and emotional health and they are really very concerned that they may not bounce back after a second round. Sadly, with what we have witnessed, we greatly share their concern”.

Christison said a number of his clients who struggle with serious physical and mental health issues are concerned about the sake of their livelihoods.

“We have all seen the numbers,” he said. “Suicide, drug overdose, unemployment, alcoholism, domestic abuse, children being removed from unstable households, violence and crime, and the list goes on. Cancer patients, diabetics, and many others with severe or terminal illnesses unable to keep their bodies and immune systems strong enough to survive their battles. These numbers are all way up from past years and directly associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Put these numbers all together and the results are staggering.”

Christison added he believes that the death and illness toll caused by lockdowns are a pandemic of its own.

“We understand that many have lost their lives to COVID-19 and no one cares more about people's health and wellbeing than the health and wellness community,” he explained. “Back in March we closed our doors without question or hesitation because there is nothing more important than the health and safety of our people. But that was then and this is now.”

There is clear evidence mental health crisis has gotten worse as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, and gym owners like Christison are seeing this first hand.

“We lost several of our members, who out of respect shall remain nameless, to their ongoing battle against the very dark and very real issue of mental health,” he said. “Suicide, drug over dose, alcoholism, domestic violence, are some of the devastating things we lost members to. These were all people who were actively using regular exercise as a tool and lifeline in their day to day struggle?"

The rise in negative health effects caused by COVID-19 restrictions is alarming doctors and psychologists. Back in September, 21 doctors wrote a letter to Ford advising him not to impose new lockdowns.

Christison said that he has received multiple emails from clients who work in healthcare, who say they felt his gyms were safe and the closures could have harmful impacts on the health of the community. “So many of our health care professionals have come forward and spoken out about the response against COVID-19.”

Christison cited The Great Barrington Declaration, which was released by doctors, infection disease epidemiologists, and public health scientists from around the globe. The declaration expresses grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies and recommends much change. He stated that “this declaration currently has a signature count of 26,651 medical practitioners, 9,948 medical & public health scientists, and 479,813 concerned citizens. It needs to be looked at and given the consideration it deserves.”

Before being forced to close again, Anytime Fitness and other gyms in Ontario and Quebec had implemented strict measures to ensure their gyms were clean and safe.

“We have done absolutely everything our government has asked of us and more. From limiting capacity, installing hand sanitizer stations, social distancing signs and markers, hospital grade air purification systems, mandatory mask rules, upgraded cleaning and sanitization products and equipment, increased cleaning efforts and staff to facilitate and educate our people. The list goes on and on. And we did this all without any question or hesitation because we care!! There is nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our community!!?” The implemented measures were so thorough that health inspectors and police told a Quebec gym in a "red zone" that it made no sense for the government to shut them down.

Gym owners are not the only ones who feel like these closures are not warranted. Earlier this week, the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA) wrote a letter to the Premier and other government officials asking them to release evidence that shows businesses being a major contributor to the recent rise in coronavirus cases. Their letter has gotten support from city councilors and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.

Christison says that if provided, he will accept concrete evidence from the government justifying the closure of his gyms. But for now, that has not happened, and he says he has got plenty of evidence to back up why gyms should stay open. “There is an abundance of evidence in our favour on this issue. Everybody knows the benefit of regular exercise. What is the first thing your doctor recommends to aid and assist in strengthening the immune system and providing a strong and safe recovery and/or preventative measure against any type of sickness or illness…exercise! So what is different here?”

The chair of OCOBIA, Mark Kaluski, stated financial concerns as a motive behind his letter, saying that “we're going to start losing a lot of our restaurants in the next 28 days.” However, Christison says that money is not a driving factor in his fight to reopen gyms, but rather the health and well-being of the community.

“With the programs put in place by the Government we were able to survive the first lockdown and are confident in our ability to do it all again,” he said. “But it’s not about that. It’s about people's rights, freedoms and lives.”

Christison added that all gym franchises are putting competition aside and working together to achieve the common goal of being able to serve the community. “It’s been such a beautiful thing. We truly are stronger together and it’s so great to see the entire Health & Fitness community band together and unite as one voice, with one message, and for one purpose. To take a stance for what is right. Enough damage has been done. We see it first hand. We need to end this madness, end this lockdown, and Health & Fitness should always be deemed essential.”

Christison’s petition, which was posted on Change.org, now has over 10,000 signatures from Ontario residents. He is now planning on bringing them to Ottawa City Hall to persuade city council to back them in their fight to reopen gyms and make them essential.

While MPP Lisa MacLeod has said that “there will be no changes,” Christison is optimistic, citing examples of other petitions which were successful at achieving their goal. “We are extremely optimistic. The support we have from our community has been overwhelming, we have so much data to support our case, and the truth always resonates. So many people are waking up and speaking out.”

“At 10,723 signatures our friends in the hospitality industry were able to make change through their petition at Change.org and the Ontario Government allowed licensed venues to offer alcohol as part of their take-out menu. With our petition now having surpassed that number we need the Government to use the same power and authority to end these lockdown measures and open our doors so we can be there to support so many people in need!” Christison tried to get in contact with MacLeod, but was unsuccessful in doing so.

Christison’s petition is still accepting signatures. If you are an Ontario resident and would like to sign it, you can do so here: Petition · A CALL TO ACTION FOR ESSENTIAL HEALTH & FITNESS. RE-OPEN OUR GYMS IN ONTARIO.

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