Jones: Stop Closing the Damn Gym
The recent closures of the Zimmerman Fitness Center are baseless and harmful.
I nearly had an aneurysm in early October when the gym was closed to “incentivize mask wearing.” Last Friday, when I was warned that the gym will be closed November 8 and 9, ostensibly to punish unmasked students, I almost did something, well, destructive.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. And while I am certain that the administration, stubborn as it is, will continue to keep closed the only fitness facility available to non-varsity athletes, I hope at least to reveal the absurdity of Dartmouth’s gym closures. Dartmouth’s decision-makers may continue to ignore the power of the pen (see Marc Novicoff’s recent scathing critique), but with this column, I hope to at least contribute to the ever-growing record of evidence that highlights Dartmouth’s inability to make coherent — or even competent — policy.
To the administration’s credit, the COVID-19 pandemic poses both urgent and difficult challenges. The logic of closing the gym, I imagine, goes something like this: Closing the gym could save lives because, otherwise, students will exercise unmasked and spread a fatal disease. On paper, that sounds somewhat reasonable — but only if your decision making paradigm treats November 2021 as March 2020.
For starters, students are unmasked all the time. My colleague Jeremy Gart noted that other Dartmouth spaces — such as the Class of 1953 Commons dining room — host unmasked students packed in far more densely than they are at the gym. Furthermore, at this point, hardly anyone wears a mask in the library. And, as everyone knows, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, hundreds of unmasked students pack fraternity basements completely unmasked. Some dance parties feature wall-to-wall bodies.
Now that might sound really bad. We probably have tons of positive cases and even some COVID-19 deaths as a result of this behavior, right?
No, we do not. For most of the term, the active case count on the College’s COVID-19 dashboard has remained steady at between zero and the mid-single digits. Even last week, when cases hit a high for the term, the case count topped out at only 10 among undergraduates. It’s now down to six.
Why have cases remained so low? Because we have this medical innovation called the mRNA vaccine, which 98.8% of Dartmouth undergraduates have received. The COVID-19 vaccine reduces viral transmission of the Delta variant by 66% and is roughly 90% effective in preventing mortality. These effects are most pronounced among Americans under the age of 35, the overwhelming majority of Zimmerman gym-goers.
In other words, once you’re vaccinated, it is difficult to get, and harder to die from, a disease that has a 1.6% mortality rate in the United States to begin with. In fact, Dartmouth has not publicly reported any COVID-19 deaths among students, staff or faculty. Moreover, over each of the past four weeks, less than 1% of all Dartmouth community members have tested positive for COVID-19. And let’s not forget, our COVID-19 tests inevitably render false positives — the number of true positives is even smaller than we think.
The science is clear. Even San Francisco, a city of nearly 900,000 and one of the most left-wing cities in America, no longer requires masks at gyms for fully vaccinated patrons. San Francisco’s policy, of course, is now in line with most of the rest of the country. Dartmouth is a glaring outlier.
So, why is Zimmerman closed as punishment for a lack of compliance with a totally unreasonable and unscientific masking policy? I truly have no clue, especially given that gym closures bear consequences for thousands of Dartmouth community members. Many club and intramural athletes value daily training. Other students, myself included, are on rigorous bodybuilding or powerlifting programs. Many more simply cherish daily exercise. And yet, with the closure of the gym, non-varsity athletes have no means of exercising through weight lifting or most forms of cardiovascular exercise (and even running outdoors has grown increasingly difficult in the cold).
The immediate impact of the administration’s decision is thus to foster intense resentment among those non-varsity athletes who value exercise. Zimmerman closures may also, in time, breed resentment between non-varsity athletes and varsity athletes, who are free to practice and play maskless on a special exemption from the college. Allegedly a policy designed to reinforce Dartmouth’s community standards, as per Athletics Director Peter Roby, Zimmerman’s closure will only drive the Dartmouth community apart.
But perhaps the most serious impact is on student mental health. Exercise is empirically proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Some data even suggests that regular exercise is just as effective — and may even be more effective — than antidepressants. From personal experience, I know the tremendous power of exercise as an antidepressant. These data become a major concern when you consider that suicide represents a larger threat to life among Dartmouth students than COVID-19, as the last year has shown.
I have never had less faith in the Dartmouth administration and staff. Sadly, Zimmerman’s closure is just the most recent example of administrative incompetence. More and more, it feels that those who oversee Dartmouth’s facilities are out to get the students who use them. If not for the school’s outstanding faculty, I would not find Dartmouth deserving of its reputation as one of America’s premier academic institutions.
While I expect nothing to come of this piece, writing provided my intense frustration a nonviolent release. To the Dartmouth administration, I will say: you are welcome. And hopefully, when it comes to gym closures and masking requirements, Interim-Director Roby can change course. Perhaps the athletics department can learn from its recent reinstatement of five foolishly defunded sports teams — it is, in fact, possible to correct awful decisions.