Unmasked at the Athletic Club

Breathing Hard Without a Mask, Indoors in Santa Barbara

Since early 2020, I’ve been obeying all Public Health directives religiously. Distance, mask, vaccinate. I even have a votive candle with Dr. Fauci’s picture on it that we got in Palm Springs when we ventured out for the Desert X outdoor art exhibit last spring. The summer of 2021 started to feel semi-normal, and then came Omicron. I break out in a cold sweat to think there are more letters left in the Greek alphabet than I have years to live, in the best-case scenario. I try to focus on gratitude. As a woman of a certain age, I keep hearing the same advice from my doctor: reduce stress, eat fiber, exercise. I’m trying. But after 35 years of dutiful exercise, as a dues-paying member at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, COVID forced me to suspend my routine.

A candle for Dr. Anthony Fauci, placed in front of the writer’s art work “Climate Holocaust” | Credit: Courtesy

Since the Athletic Club has reopened, I have returned, gingerly, in non-prime time, to avoid the willfully unvaccinated. The club has a very large sign posted at the front door stating that face coverings are required for indoor exercise. I was comforted by it. It seemed to reflect that there are no exceptions to Health Officer Order No. 2021.10.7. Face coverings are required in all indoor public settings, at all times. Gyms are not exempt. But I have been noticing lately that Athletic Club members have been disregarding the rule — using the treadmills, for example, which are all inside, and stacked up directly next to one another — energetically running, sweating, breathing hard. We’ve all seen the graphics of the contaminated spray coming out of runners’ mouths, a 15-foot-long contrail of virus. I have not complained to the individuals, though the treadmills are the one piece of equipment I need most. But I’m not by nature a “cop,” nor should I be forced to act like one — people are quite crazy these days.

So, I inquired at the front desk about the apparent non-enforcement of the mask policy. I was told, quite matter-of-factly, that the club does not “enforce” its posted rule. “Whaa??” On that day, I was using a treadmill at 1:30 p.m. — non-prime time, to avoid crowds — and had suddenly found myself closely packed among seven young strangers, none of whom were masked. I asked to speak to the manager.

I explained my problem: 75, immune compromised. He confirmed, quite casually — if you can be casual and extremely defensive at the same time — that, contrary to their posted sign, they had elected not to “police” people. So, the sign was a misleading lie. His defenses came in quick succession, each one more absurd than the last. He analogized this club “policy” not to comply with the express terms of Public Health order as similar to entering a restaurant with a mask and then removing the mask to eat. He claimed that once a person climbed onto a piece of equipment to exercise, the rule simply did not apply.

I was stunned. Who eats while on the treadmill? Isn’t that a choking hazard?

He also claimed — falsely — there were plenty of outdoor spaces for me to exercise. But the only treadmills are inside, stacked side by side, with not even a separation the width of a finger. And it apparently did not occur to him to tell the unmasked people that outside is where they should be headed.

Jana Zimmer | Credit: Courtesy

He next claimed that if I am masked, I am sufficiently protected from his preferred members, “The Unmasked.” I wanted to ask when he graduated from the Tucker Carlson School of Medicine. I didn’t. I knew better than to indulge my penchant for sarcasm in that moment.

Finally, he claimed that if I was uncomfortable, I should just not come to the gym at all! In other words, he was refusing to do what the law requires him to do to protect me, as a vulnerable person, so other, newer, younger members who are less vulnerable can enjoy their workouts and spread their microbes without feeling constrained.

I became more and more agitated as he made these outlandish claims. We exited his office and continued to argue, with both our voices raised. He had pulled his own mask down below his nose so he could yell at me more easily, apparently. His eyes were bugging out. He was “spitting” mad. I was getting irate, as well, at listening to each incredibly stupid rationalization. He then lost his temper and told me that he was suspending my membership and I should leave. I was stunned. I argued with him about his basis to do that, and in an effort not to use the F-word in front of his two young employees, I showed him my finger. That was the middle finger on the same hand that has been unfailingly writing monthly checks to the Santa Barbara Athletic Club for 35 years. He told me again to leave, this time telling me he was terminating my membership.

Now he claims he summarily terminated my membership, not because I caught him out in blatant violation of the Public Health order, and challenged his excuses, but because I was “rude” and flipped him off after he summarily ordered me to leave the building. But his rudeness, and uncontrolled and unprofessional conduct, isn’t the issue either, and it doesn’t change the basic facts: Since the Athletic Club is flouting the law, I cannot feel safe there, nor should anyone else.

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