Gart: The Gym? Really?

Even as the College promises to do better in the way of COVID-19 policies and mental health, the recent gym closure demonstrates how one step forward always involves two steps back.

by Jeremy Gart | 10/12/21 3:15am

The first time I went to a gym, I dropped a weight on my foot. I was a stick-thin, anxiety-riddled 18-year-old who had just arrived in Tel Aviv on a gap year program. The only reason I was at this strange, odorous facility in the first place was because my friends had somehow cajoled me into accompanying them, even though I was staunchly against actually joining the gym. When we strolled down the aisles of panting millennials on ellipticals and bulging Israeli Defense Forces soldiers pumping ungodly heavy curls, however, my perspective quickly began to change. Contrary to my expectations, I wasn’t being judged for my super-skinny arms at all. Nobody cared if I was barely able to wobble up a 20-pound weight— they were simply concerned with their own workout. When I attempted to lug a 30-pounder over to my bench, the weight rolled right off the rack, thunking onto my right foot. And yet, while my pain was very real, the expected accompanying embarrassment simply never came. 

Over the next few months, I visited the gym three or four times a week, every week. My time in Israel was a shuddering roller coaster filled with joy, terror, thrills and everything in between — and through it all, the gym became an essential anchor of my routine. After the wildest nights out or the most draining days of work, I’d look forward to the gym as a surefire way to recenter my mental health and get me back on track. The gym was, and still is, a key part of my daily life. 

On Oct. 5, Dartmouth decided to shut down the gym for the day. A sign outside of Alumni Gym read, “Our hope is this action will result in better mask compliance in the future, so everyone remains safe. Otherwise, there will be further limitations put in place.” This, of course, implies that the gym shutdown was due to the safety issue that spotty mask-wearing may pose. The Class of 1953 Commons dining room, however, has remained open, indoors, with a significantly higher density of students, all with their masks entirely off. If it’s a safety issue the gym is closed for, there are very clearly other places on campus to scrutinize before the gym. 

Of course, this implies that there really is a safety issue in the first place. According to the Dartmouth COVID-19 Dashboard, as of Oct. 5, there are zero active cases across the entire undergraduate population. 96% of the College is vaccinated against the virus, and testing is conducted weekly. Any rare breakthrough case is being caught incredibly quickly, and the virus has simply not been spreading on campus. Surely, if the “dismal” mask-wearing at the gym is such a safety issue, it would have contributed to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases on campus. And yet, the virus’s presence remains nearly nonexistent. 

Understandably, many remain concerned about the immunocompromised members of our community, or the children not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. Make no mistake — efforts to stop the spread of the virus are crucial, and the very reason that our numbers are so fantastic right now. Wearing a mask in class to protect professors, and in most indoor spaces, is a small inconvenience that I’m more than happy to oblige. But there’s no reason that the gym can’t become a zone where masks aren’t required — just like Foco’s dining room already has been for the past month. The great irony is, of course, that before the gym shutdown, masks were worn by the vast majority of students using the facility. Yes, some students failed to comply with the policies or let their masks fall below their noses, but the average user of the gym remained masked. In short, a few students who pushed back against the current policies created a recoil that has affected the entire student body. 

Additionally, the communication of the gym’s closure was extremely minimal. As a freshman, I only received word of the closure through frustrated friends who had seen the sign outside the facility firsthand. In fact, the only students who were directly informed of the closure were members of indoor club sports. Just like each sudden change in testing policy, the Dartmouth administration has failed to adequately communicate the changes to their own COVID-19 rules. If they expect compliance of the regulations laid down by the College, it’d be a great start to actually inform the student body about what those regulations are. 

Yes, the gym was only closed for a day. But the gym’s closure in the first place sends a loud, clear message from the administration: Illogical rules relating to COVID-19 are still being enforced. And the enforcement of those rules comes diametrically opposed to the mental health of the College’s students. Dartmouth has made an outward commitment to doing better in the wake of last year’s events. But this has simply furthered a sobering truth: For every ounce of progress made in the right direction, the administration seems to counter it with a new, harmful policy. 

Broadly, the fall of 2021 has been a success. Students are back in the classrooms, and the campus is alive once again with vibrant, buzzing energy. Clubs are in full swing, friendships are being formed and revitalized, and college life finally appears to resemble a pre-COVID-19 state. But the very reason this quarter has gone so well, and the reason last year was so disastrous, is precisely why the gym’s sudden closure is so concerning. The student body is a brilliant, concerned, well-educated group of people. If we are treated with respect, communicated with effectively and shown a willingness to listen to the student body, then there’s no reason the rest of the year shouldn’t continue smoothly. But the closure of the gym represents the exact kind of discord that is so harmful to our collective success as a school. 

So please, let’s allow our students to keep working out at the gym. This time around, I’ll try not to drop any dumbbells.

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