Gyms re-opening in Wales for the first time since they were forced to close days before Christmas has been an eagerly-awaited step for many across the country.
The good news is, after the Welsh Government announced its latest lockdown-easing timetable, that gyms have a date to plan ahead for.
Now lockdown measures across Wales are set to be eased over the coming weeks as coronavirus cases remain stable, which has in turn eased the pressure on hospital admission across the country.
Nearly half of Wales’ adult population has now received their first vaccine dose, and there are growing hopes that the government will be able to open up the economy once again this summer.
However, while we’ll be able to go out and enjoy a meal and a drink outside from April 26, we won’t be able to visit a gym for a little longer yet.
Here’s everything we know so far.
When will gyms in Wales re-open?
The Welsh Government announced on Wednesday night that gyms in Wales are set to re-open on May 10, subject to the public health situation at the time.
That target date also includes leisure centres and swimming pools.
First Minister Drakeford told Gist Vile on Thursday morning: “The first steps we will take to indoor easing will be on May 10 when gyms and leisure centres will be able to resume indoors and where extended households we hope will be available again.”
The re-opening date of May 10 will be a blow to the industry, who will almost be a full month behind gyms in England being allowed to re-open their doors.
This latest lockdown-easing measure comes amid a backdrop of stabilising Covid cases. Two deaths were recorded for Wales on April 1, while 188 people turned in positive tests.
All 22 local authorities now have seven-day case rates below 100 per 100,000, while the percentage of tests coming back positive currently stands at 2.5 per cent, below the benchmark of five per cent.
What will gyms look like when they re-open? The rules so far
The re-opening date for May 10 will only apply for individual or one-to-one training. This means 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.
Why are gyms staying closed until a month after England’s re-open?
Mr Drakeford has already declared Boris Johnson’s timetable for easing restrictions in England as as being “at the very optimistic end of the spectrum”.
As such, the Welsh Government has adopted what it believes to be a more cautious approach to the re-opening of gyms in comparison to its counterparts across the border.
Such caution has mainly been driven by concerns over the highly-infectious Kent variant of Covid-19, and Mr Drakeford has already admitted that we’re likely to be left with even some basic restrictions until at least the end of the year.
Nevertheless, gym and fitness facility owners could face the prospect of punters who live along the border being freely able to travel into England to use a gym from April 12.
Explaining the decision, the First Minister said: “Well, gyms now have a definite date for re-opening in Wales and I hope that will be something that will allow people to plan and get everything in place. The published advice from as long ago as February from our technical advisory group does demonstrate that gyms can be super spreader locations.
“They are indoors. Some of them are not as well ventilated, as others, but they are still the first thing that we will allow to happen indoors in the sequence.
“So we are prioritising the gym sector because of the physical and mental well being that comes from allowing people to go there. They happen after other things because we are exhausting the outdoor activities that people can resume first and then gyms and leisure centres and fitness facilities will follow as soon as we believe it is safe for that to happen.
“And this allows the sector to put in place all the safeguards that are necessary in order to make sure that people can visit them confidently and knowing that their health and wellbeing is going to be properly looked after.”
What has been the reaction to the news?
While there’s a sense of relief that the industry now has a date to work towards, many believe the delay in re-opening is unnecessary.
Many gym owners believe that, despite the government’s claims, they pose no greater risk than any other sector, and believe they are being unfairly restricted.
Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive – which helps promote the interests of gyms and community leisure centres – said: “Today’s roadmap seems to be driven more by political considerations, and not data and evidence. If that was the case, then gyms, pools and leisure centres would be opening this month.
“Gyms, pools, and leisure centres proved in the first re-opening they were safe, with an extremely low prevalence rate of Covid-19. This was primarily a result of the framework developed by the Welsh Government and partners, including ukactive.
“The Welsh Government continues to refer to published documentation which describes the theoretical risk posed, and does not acknowledge the mitigations in place and their own co-produced framework. This remains a misleading position to present to the Welsh people.
“This unnecessary delay in re-opening the sector will place more financial pressure on the ability of these facilities to survive, and delay the ability of the Welsh public to improve their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
“Operators across both the public and private sector feel let down by the First Minister’s decision and want to see more done to support them.
“We believe this date should be reviewed and the Welsh Government needs to provide greater bespoke support for the recovery and survival of these essential facilities.”
Another factor which has further irked voices within the industry is the fact that back in February, Eluned Morgan, the Welsh Government’s minister for mental health, wellbeing and Welsh language, insisted gyms and fitness centres would be among the first businesses considered for re-opening when the easing of restrictions began. But this has not been the case, although the First Minister has said gyms are being prioritised as the first indoor facilities to re-open.
Rhys Jones, head of service at Better Cardiff, which is currently in partnership with Cardiff City Council to manage eight leisure centres across the city, warned that the mental and physical health of people across the country could suffer further due to the delay.
He said: “We have very safe, industry leading Covid secure processes in place and gyms and swimming pools across the UK were proven to have low rates of Covid-19 transmission when opened at various points last year.
“This delay will cause more damage to the mental and physical health of the population, with fitness levels deteriorating.
“For many, group and individual exercise is an integral part of daily life. Exercising outdoors has been tough throughout the lockdown winter months and people have been robbed of the opportunity to enjoy regular exercise at a time when the negative and worrying news of the pandemic develops constantly.
“This is having untold consequences on the physical and mental health of our population and for every day that leisure facilities remain closed, public health deteriorates further, and the risk of obesity and stress becomes critical.
“With plans to re-open in England already set for April 12, the people of Wales deserve the same hope. As a leisure provider we stand ready to open our doors and resume our crucial role in preventing a health crisis.”
Could the date be changed?
At a Welsh Government press conference, the First Minister said he understood the frustrations expressed by voices in the industry, but appeared to offer little indication of a potential rethink.
He said: “I understand that everybody wishes that their particular preference could be earlier, whether you’re focused on sport outdoors, gyms or family reunions.
“Everybody wishes that that could be the one thing we do earlier.
“We’ve really carefully looked at all the things we are able to do and we’ve announced a very significant package of re-opening here in Wales.
“But we have to do it, as we’ve done it all along, step by step, carefully, always monitoring the impact of the decisions we are making
“And in a few short weeks, people will be able to be back in outdoor hospitality, people will be able to be out playing sport in numbers of up to 30, two households will be able to form an extended household again, and prospects of more even beyond that.”
However, there could yet be a twist.
Gym owners have already issued a letter calling on the Welsh Government to re-open the industry on April 12 – in line with England or provide clear evidence-based justification for their closure.
The letter has informed the government that it has until April 7 to respond, adding that judicial proceedings could then commence.
Outlining the case for gym owners, the letter has labelled the continued lockdown of the industry as “irrational” and “disproportionate”, citing the re-opening of hairdressers in March as evidence of unfair treatment of their sector.
The letter states: “It would only be justifiable to maintain restrictions on gyms if the evidence clearly showed that this was necessary to protect the public health or that gyms posed a significantly different risk to public health other than those services which are now, or will be shortly, permitted to open.
“However, this is not the case. To the contrary, the evidence does not support the continued closure of gyms whatsoever.”
Whether such actions are enough to alter the date set by Mr Drakeford remains to be seen, with the first Minister telling BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that suggestions of there being no scientific evidence for the given timescale were “completely untrue”.