Why I stopped wearing a mask at the gym—and then started again

Long story short:

At first I didn’t know better. Now I do.

Long story longer:

In the beginning, I masked. That entire first year, I masked nearly everywhere I went. Everywhere indoors, anyway. The only exceptions were private homes, and aside from my own, I only went to a few of those—my dad’s, my coparents’, the homes of two close friends—and everyone who lived in those homes masked outside of them, too. (Which: It was rare for any of us to leave our homes in the beginning. With the exception of my dad and my kids’ dad, all of us worked from home, and we had our groceries delivered. Unmasking in each other’s homes at that time felt safe because it largely was.)

I was living in Virginia when Covid first hit, and when the gyms there closed, I worked out in my garage. There, in my own garage, I didn’t mask. A few months into the pandemic, I began to split my time between my home in Virginia and my dad’s home in Oregon. We knew very little about Covid at this point, just that it was killing a lot of people and it was doing so quickly. Vaccines weren’t available yet, and I didn’t feel safe flying between Portland and DC, so I drove. While at my dad’s, an arrangement that lasted only a few weeks, I trained in his garage. He’s been into lifting longer than I’ve been alive, and he had a decent setup for to build off of. I brought my own barbell, bumper plates, kettlebells, and wall ball with me in my car. While in his garage, I didn’t mask. I did mask—with a KN95—whenever I went running in his neighborhood. I just didn’t mask inside the garage.

Me, standing against a squat rack in my dad's garage, summer 2020. I'm wearing spandex workout shorts and a floral-print sports bra. My hands are on my head and I'm smiling at the camera. I'm not wearing a mask.

At the end of summer 2020, I joined a gym in Portland. I was no longer staying with my dad during the weeks and months that I was in Oregon, and I needed a new place to train. At the time, mask mandates were still in place in Portland, and very strictly enforced at the gym I’d joined. This particular gym also strictly enforced capacity limits (seven people at a time, max), wiping down of all equipment after use, and cleaning the floors between athletes. And they had each workout/training “station” clearly marked and taped out.

I trained at this gym, in a cloth mask, until November 2020, when, following the WHO’s acknowledgement that Covid is airborne (something aerosol researchers had been screaming about since April 2020), Oregon went into another lockdown and gyms here closed again. I spent the next few weeks working out in a friend’s driveway, using my own equipment, which I continued to lug around with me, coast to coast, in my car.

Selfie of me in late 2020, sitting on a bench at the gym, wearing a cloth mask.

In early 2021, as things reopened, I joined a different gym Portland. For the first few months, I was strict about masking. Mostly I stuck with my cloth mask. Sometimes, when I forgot my mask at home, or couldn’t quickly find it in my gym bag, I’d wear a surgical mask, which the gym provided at the front desk.

Beginning around mid-2021, I’d sometimes take my mask off at the gym—usually when going for heavy sets, or doing conditioning on the Echo bike, which I did next to a wide-open bay door. I felt safe, and, I suppose, invincible. At this point, I didn’t personally know anyone who’d caught Covid—and I didn’t yet realize/understand that this was because I don’t know very many people, not because Covid “isn’t that bad” (it is that bad, and probably worse than that)—and much of the media buzz around Covid had started to shift in tone. It was dangerous, sure, but we were nearing the end of it, making our way back to The Before Times. And anyway, I reasoned, I’m young and healthy and fit. I’ve never had a serious illness. The only times I’ve been hospitalized were when I was pregnant. It was unlikely, I felt, that I would catch Covid at all, and certainly not in those few minutes here and there when I unmasked at the gym.

The gym I trained at during this time was huge, and at the time of day I trained, there usually weren’t many people there. At the time, mask mandates were still in place in the city, and more than a few businesses were requiring proof of vaccination to enter. I felt justified in occasionally unmasking at the gym for exactly these reasons—everyone had to mask everywhere else they went, which meant, in theory, we were all masking most of the time, which meant, in theory, it was safer to (occasionally and briefly) unmask indoors around others. The gym was (and still is) the only social thing I do, and I felt that I was making an informed, risk-based decision—in putting myself in that space in the first place, and in sometimes unmasking in it. And, I believed, people at the gym were more likely to be cautious about their health outside of the gym, the gym being full of people who care about, you know, health (O! The naivety!). Plus, the gym was the only place I didn’t mask, and it was only sometimes. I felt no responsibility toward the health of others, and accessibility wasn’t a concept that was even on my radar at this point. I was focused only on my individual risk, and I’d assessed that to be basically zero.

Me, mid-2022, deadlifting alone in an empty gym. I'm not wearing a mask.

In January 2022, I began lifting in a neighbor’s garage. I lifted alone, so I didn’t mask. I also didn’t mask when I dropped into gyms in Virginia and Texas while visiting my kids earlier this year. Especially when I was the only person in the gym, which happened more frequently than you might expect. (One thing I like about CrossFit and CrossFit-adjacent gyms? Many of them participate in a program that allows members 24/7 access to participating facilities through an app that unlocks the door, which is particularly convenient to me, a person who keeps a rigid schedule and routine, even when (especially when) away from home.)

For the first few months at my current gym, which I joined in May 2022, I didn’t mask at all (though I did mask for the two or three observational visits I made before deciding to join the gym). Most of my training sessions were outdoors, or near wide-open bay doors. For the same reasons I mention above—a sense of invincibility; a focus only on my own risk/health; an assumption that people at the gym were also limiting their exposure to other people, and consistently masking, outside of the gym and therefore safe to be around unmasked—I felt justified in not wearing a mask at the gym. I continued to mask (indoors) elsewhere. Just not at the gym.

Me, fall 2022, setting up to lift a loaded barbell at the gym. I'm wearing a KN95 mask.

I started masking again at the gym at the end of the summer. Since then, I’ve masked every time I’ve gone to the gym, and for the entirety of every training session. I put my mask on before I get out of my car, and if I need to take it off for any reason—to drink water, to eat a snack, to pop in a new piece of gum, to catch my breath, whatever—I go outside and walk away, or go sit in my car, before pulling it down or taking it off to do any of those things.

My masking habits changed outside of the gym around this time, too. Since the end of the summer, I mask everywhere that isn’t my apartment or car. I mask in my apartment hallway. I mask to check the mail. I mask to take out the trash. I mask to walk to and from my car. I mask when I’m standing in an outdoor line. I mask when I go for a walk through my neighborhood.

What changed?

  1. Our understanding of Covid (and Long Covid),
  2. My definition of “health” and my understanding of health as a collective responsibility, and
  3. My access and exposure to Covid-related news, information, and research.

I started paying attention. I started spending A LOT of time in online disability spaces (#LongCovid, #DisabilityTwitter, #NEISVoid), and I chose to heed rather than ignore both the science and the stories shared by people with first-hand, lived experience of chronic illness, disability, Covid, and/or Long Covid.

Around the same time, I had, over the course of about a week, a series of in-real-life experiences that (1) reminded me that as an anxious autistic, I lead a very different life, especially socially, than most (which is to say: I don’t have a social life at all outside of the gym), and (2) made it very clear to me that the dominant ideas about “health” and what it means to be “healthy”—which until recently I fully bought into and actively supported—are incredibly narrow and ableist (and therefore exclusionary), and don’t consider, include, or accommodate people who fall outside that definition. Many, many people are operating as if the lives of those who are chronically ill and/or disabled count less, or don’t count at all. Many, many people believe, incorrectly (obviously), that “health” is an innate character trait and individual responsibility, and that “bad” “health” is a personal failing and/or deserved.

Why so serious about my masking protocol?

Because Covid is really fucking serious!!! I read the science. I understand the science. I believe the science. And you know what? It ain’t great, folks! A sampling:

Kids are suffering—and I do mean suffering—too.

I could go on and on and on and on—and then some. There is no shortage of Covid-related news, information, and research. Here are a few places to start:

@Dr.EricDing
@loscharlos
@mandatemasksus
@PeoplesCDC
@TRyanGregory
@wsbgnl

I wear a mask because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to catch Covid, I don’t want to spread Covid, and I want chronically ill and disabled folks to have a shot at living their lives more fully and more safely than they’re currently able to. If we, as a society, are going to insist on returning to life as if the pandemic is past tense (which: it’s not (and, sorry to break it to you, life will never again be like it was)), the least we can do is ensure that people with less privilege can live their lives too.

“Less privileged” does not mean “less than” or “less worthy.” “More privileged” does not mean “better than” or “more worthy.” Those of us who have more privilege in any given context or domain of life should be using that privilege in a way that considers, accommodates, and includes people who have less privilege.

This is a basic tenet and function of accessibility. And accessibility isn’t—or at least, it shouldn’t be—an after thought. Making sure spaces are accessible is the bare fucking minimum. And honestly, y’all??? A really easy, low-effort, and affordable way to make literally any space safer and more accessible in the middle of a mass-disabling, deadly pandemic is to wear a mask.

I understand that it might annoy you to wear a mask. Maybe physically, maybe psychologically, maybe both. But that annoyance is not actual harm. Not wearing a mask causes actual, material, real-time harm to other people.

We know that being vaccinated isn’t enough. We know that being boosted isn’t enough. We know that the vaccine and boosters do not make you immune to catching or spreading Covid. We know that they do not protect you against the silent and long-term damage Covid does—and we know that that damage is abundant, pervasive, and persistent (and, way too often, fatal). We know that the vaccine and boosters work to lessen the severity of your symptoms if/when Covid gets inside your body. We know that masks help prevent the virus from getting inside your body in the first place. We know that any mask is better than no mask. And we know that N95 masks (respirators) are better than cloth and surgical masks.

Too many people are focused on the fact that Covid isn’t killing as many people during acute infection as it did at the beginning of the pandemic, and are ignoring (or ignorant of) the silent and long-term damage it does. Again: Neither the vaccine nor the boosters protect you from this damage. You are at risk of both (1) developing Long Covid, and (2) Covid-related death, even if you’re vaccinated, even if you’re boosted, even if your acute infection was “not that bad,” even if you “feel fine,” even if your case wasn’t symptomatic at all—and so are the people around you. If you’re walking around without a mask, you’re putting other people at risk, too.

Places and spaces that don’t require masking are inaccessible by default (and sometimes—more often than you might believe—by design) (honestly, it’s wild to me that gyms—places that claim to care about health and wellness—don’t require masking). Chronically ill and disabled folks—WHO HAVE THE SAME RIGHT AS EVERYONE ELSE TO LIVE A LIFE—have no shot at safety when masks are not required. Wearing a mask keeps you safer, and it keeps the people around you safer. It is a gesture of respect and compassion, in addition to being a demonstration of basic scientific comprehension.

Community health is a collective responsibility. A group project, if you will. Right now, only one or two members of the group are doing all the work. We need everyone to step up and participate. Part of living in a society and being a part of a community is protecting the community, especially the most marginalized. If your risk assessment doesn’t include consideration for the risk that your choice to not wear a mask poses to others with less privilege, you need to go back to the drawing board. Here is a good Twitter thread that explains why mitigation measures are about the collective, not individual, risk.

It’s true that there’s a lot about Covid that we don’t know. It’s also true that there’s a lot about it that we do know, and what we do know boils down to: Covid is bad (RILL bad), and masks work. Once I understood these two things, I updated my personal protocol to reflect what we know. Before, when I didn’t know better, I didn’t mask consistently, and I didn’t wear a high-quality mask. Now, I know better, so I do. I sincerely hope more people (you??? 👀) will do the same.

Here’s a U.S.-based distributor that sells high-quality (N95) masks in both kid and adult sizes. Their prices are very reasonable, you can buy in bulk, and they ship/arrive quickly.

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