Welsh gym owners and members say they will march on the Senedd next weekend in protest at the continued closure of the health and leisure industry in Wales.
News of the planned march comes amid controversial scenes in Cardiff Bay on Friday night as hundreds of people gathered to drink and party, breaking lockdown and social distancing rules for hours with no police intervention. That situation has further frustrated gym owners, who have been told they face £10,000 fines if they flout rules and open their doors before May 10. They are currently unable to even hold outdoor group exercise classes.
Earlier this week, First Minister Mark Drakeford sparked anger by announcing Welsh gyms would be shut for a month longer than English ones, and gym owners are now threatening legal action.
Chris Jones, who runs Force Strength gym in Llandow, Vale of Glamorgan, said: “It is very frustrating. We’ve been pushed to the back of the queue. I have friends in the hospitality industry and they have suffered more than anybody, but it does seem crazy you can sit in a beer garden and have a pint on April 26, but you can’t do an outdoor fitness class. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in anything.
“It was very frustrating to see that [the scenes in Cardiff Bay] to be honest. If I was to open up a fitness class outside, I’d get a £10,000 fine and my clients would get a £200 fine on the spot but yet people were allowed to come and go as they please last night. You hear of gym owners in England opening up, breaking the rules and being fined. We don’t want to be doing that. Last night was like a free-for-all. It was like a festival.”
Hundreds of gym owners and members of the public now plan to march on the Senedd on April 10 after coming together to form a group called Welsh Health Matters. They will march from Cardiff city centre to the Bay two days before the date they believe they should be allowed to re-open.
Simon Johnston, who runs a PT centre with 150 members in Rhyl, said: “It’s made me angry. The Welsh Government are overlooking the evidence that supports gyms being able to re-open. We are in the middle of a health pandemic, yet the pubs are able to re-open and other close contact services. I genuinely think we need to stand up as an industry and make our voice heard.
“There’s an organised protest that’s being fully authorised by South Wales Police and there should be thousands there. I will be. England are largely coming out of their lockdown on April 12. We went into lockdown before them and our rates are lower than theirs. People just don’t think this is fair or necessary.”
Alex Bodin, 32, has been the director of One Gym in Newport for the last three years. It’s a massive, state-of-the-art facility, with 40,000 sq ft of floor space and “more checks in place than airport”, he says, including temperature checks and QR codes being required to get inside the building.
Mr Bodin says the fact gyms in Wales can’t open until May 10 has been “a hard pill to swallow”.
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OneGym is part of Welsh Health Matters, which is organising next weekend’s protest.
“What we’re asking for, as independent gym owners, is for them to reclassify our businesses as essential,” he said.
“I don’t think they’ll change the date [of when gyms can re-open]. But if there are subsequent lockdowns, we come in a different category.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow. I feel like they’ve dangled the carrot in front of us throughout the pandemic. The reality is the scientific evidence he [First Minister Mark Drakeford] keeps quoting just isn’t there.”
“We’re pushing the message that the health of the Welsh public is at an all-time low, obesity levels are at an all-time high.
“People in our industry, who are experts in working day-in, day-out to better people’s health, aren’t being prioritised.
“It’s hard for us to see things that are actually detrimental to health being prioritised ahead of us: pubs, drinking, takeaways have been open throughout this pandemic when all the figures suggest that being overweight and unhealthy leads to an increased likelihood of becoming ill with Covid.
“We’re just asking to be treated fairly. The health and well-being of the Welsh nation is on the line here.”
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Damian Cole, who runs Abergavenny Strength and Conditioning, added: Some people are threatening to open anyway but I don’t see what that will achieve. You’re just going to end up getting fined.
“It is wrong that businesses, and people’s mental and physical health, have been penalised for absolutely no good reason now. It is as though Drakeford is on a personal mission or vendetta against gyms. How can hairdressers be two months safer than a gym? It’s plainly ridiculous.”
The Welsh Government has remained cautious with regards to the re-opening of gyms, pointing to fears surrounding the highly-infectious Kent variant of Covid-19 that has taken hold in the country.
But gym owners feel they pose no greater risk than any other sector and say they are experiencing an unfair restriction of trade.
The re-opening date for May 10 will only apply for individual or one-to-one training. This means indoor fitness classes will remain off limits – but just for another week. Resuming organised indoor activities for adults, for up to 15 people, including exercise classes, has been pencilled in for May 17.