Belgium's Consultative Committee announced on Tuesday that it would be standardising the use of the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) meaning it will be needed to enter various public spaces in all regions, including gyms.
As was already the case in Brussels, people will be asked to prove that they have been fully vaccinated, recently tested negative or recovered from the virus in the past half-year before entering these sporting facilities across Belgium starting from Monday 1 November.
However, the use of the CST will not be expanded to other sports centres, such as dance schools, swimming and boxing clubs - a decision lamented by Belgian Fitness Federation Fitness.be, which had expected the measure to be imposed on the whole sector.
“I don’t understand why the introduction of the CST is only happening in our sector. It is discriminatory and stigmatising that only the private sector is targeted,” Fitness.be’s Erik Vandenabeele told De Morgen. "I think there is a similar danger in those places as in fitness centres."
For fitness chains whose centres remain open during the night, including Basic-Fit, staff will either have to work night shifts in order to check customers for their health passes, or opening hours will have to be adapted.
"We have always followed the measures since the start of this pandemic because for us the most important thing is to keep our centres open so that all members have the opportunity to come and work out," Kevin Ayeni, Basic-Fit's Marketing Manager for the Benelux, told The Brussels Times.
"Unfortunately, because of this new measure, we will have to close around 100 24/7 clubs in Flanders and Brussels, so we will effectively have to fall back on regular opening hours, meaning our gyms will be open until 10:30 PM instead of all throughout the night."
Health and social argument
The government has both epidemiological and societal arguments to support the use of CST in fitness centres.
"From a health perspective, the activities that take place in a fitness centre are intense, there is a lot of intense, heavy breathing. This produces a lot of what we call aerosols, which is a risk," Pedro Facon, Belgium's Corona Commissioner, said on Radio 1.
Vandenabeele, however, argued that the fitness sector has been a "pioneer" when it comes to hygiene, safety and ventilation. "Many gyms have already made substantial investments in a good ventilation system," he said.
Ayeni agreed, saying "we have made all the necessary investments, and I think that the figures have also proven this in fact: no massive outbreaks have been linked to our gyms."
"Strict measures are still in place, as people still have to make reservations in advance, we have ventilation systems, social distancing is made possible, so these steps have been taken on our side," he added.
Facon recognised the efforts made by many gyms to improve the health safety of their centres; however, he stressed that this is not yet the case everywhere.
He added that the use of the CST in gyms was also tightened to include those in Flanders, as a problematic situation was manifesting itself in the outskirts around Brussels.
"We have been confronted with the fact that people who normally go to the gym in Brussels were going to another centre managed by the same chain in Flanders, which resulted in those centres becoming overwhelmed, mainly by unvaccinated people," Facon said.
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Virologist Steven Van Gucht supported this argument for the measure to be imposed in Flanders, as "you can very easily go from one fitness club to another if you have a membership. You can't just do that for dance clubs or martial arts clubs."
However, he did not support the epidemiological argument, saying there was little scientific evidence behind this decision, agreeing that there is no difference in risk between these places.
"In a boxing club, there is close physical contact, whereas fitness is primarily an individual sport. So it is not the case that we think that fitness poses more risks than any other group sport. The request didn't come from experts, it is a political decision," he said.
Facon agreed that the government needs to consider how it can treat the entire sector equally: "Fundamentally I support the decision to use the CST in gyms, but I think we need to look at the implementation in more detail in the coming days."
Meanwhile, Basic-Fit hopes that together with the government, it can find a solution to automatically check the Covid Safe Ticket without having to make employees work night shifts, "so that we can offer people who prefer working out at night or early in the morning those opening hours again."