Quebec City gym owner blames clients for massive outbreak

Dan Marino, owner of Mega Fitness Gym 24H, says his staff couldn't police 3,000 members every minute, but the Quebec City public health says it's up to the owner to make sure health measures are applied.

Regional health authority says it is up to the gym operators to ensure rules are followed

Dan Marino, owner of Mega Fitness Gym 24H, said he never wanted to defy public health rules. Rather, he suggests his staff didn't have the capacity to police gym members. (Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

Speaking out for the first time since his gym was linked to hundreds of COVID-19 cases last March, Daniel Marino says there were some measures that could have been better enforced.

However, he maintains that his staff didn't have the capacity to police members the whole time they were on the premises.

"If we had, maybe, gaps it's not having enough people on the floor to tell 3,000 members, 'Put your mask on,'" he said. "Are you going to put a police officer with each member?"

The Mega Fitness Gym 24H in Quebec City was shut down March 31 for not following public health restrictions. Public health officials linked the gym to more than 500 COVID-19 cases and 36 workplace outbreaks in the weeks that followed. 

One gym member, a 40-year-old man, was also infected and later died in hospital.

Marino was a vocal opponent of gym closures throughout the pandemic, and opened his gym in defiance of provincial regulations last June, attracting police and media to his door.

In the past, Marino has also shared social media posts that question the effectiveness of masks and minimize the dangers of COVID-19.

Marino admitted there were "some measures in the gym that maybe we didn't respect 100 per cent," like exercise machines being too close together.

However, he said the clients had a responsibility to know and follow the rules.

"After a year of pandemic and COVID, I hope that the person is responsible enough to say, 'I won't go on this machine because there's someone right there.' But I saw that it wasn't the case. We have to repeat it for people again. Even after 15 months, you always have to repeat, 'Put your mask on; keep the two metres.'"

Marino said that he did kick people out of the gym for not respecting the rules, but they were angry.

"They would say, 'You don't have the right kick me out.' Well, yes I do. You're not respecting the rules, you're scaring the other clients," he said.

He said he lost employees because they didn't want to have to police clients and constantly remind them to follow the rules.

Marino also contracted COVID

Asked about his own behaviour, Marino denied reports made by gym users in the media that he flouted the rules by not wearing a mask on the gym floor.

Marino told Radio-Canada that he only took off his mask when he was behind Plexiglass barriers.

Notably, Marino also contracted COVID-19 and spent several days in hospital.

The site of a COVID outbreak that has caused hundreds of cases and dozens of other workplace outbreaks. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

The outbreak at Mega Fitness Gym 24H was dubbed one of Canada's largest COVID-19 superspreading events and many politicians were critical of the gym.

At the time, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume blasted the gym's management for taking a lax approach to safety after reopening. 

"Bravo champion," he said in French, which roughly translates as "way to go, champ."

"Everyone has nice biceps but now people are sick."

Marino told Radio-Canada that he felt unfairly singled out, considering that his was not the only business that was at the centre of an outbreak.

When the gym was ordered shut down, a public health inspection found several breaches, including not checking customers and workers for symptoms at the door, people working out within two metres of each other and inadequate protective measures for the staff.

Marino said that he has since been inspected again and all those issues have been resolved.

He plans to reopen his gym on May 31 with more personnel and with exercise stations an appropriate distance apart.

In a statement Wednesday, Quebec City public health confirmed it has given the gym the green light to reopen next week but says it will keep a close eye on the establishment. 

"We will make sure, through follow-ups and on-site visits, that the sanitary measures are applied rigorously. We will not allow the situation to endanger the health and safety of the population again," the statement says. 

"And in case this isn't clear: It is the responsibility of the operator to ensure all people present at the centre, staff or client, are following the sanitary measures."

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc