Protests held outside gyms throughout Quebec in defiance of pandemic closures

A gym in the Montreal neighbourhood of Villeray was one of several across Quebec that held protests to oppose the provincial government's decision to exclude them from its pandemic reopening plan. 

A date has not yet been set for when gyms in the province can reopen

Karim El Hlimi is the co-owner of Gym Le Vestiaire in the Montreal neighbourhood of Villeray and one of the organizers behind the movement to reopen gyms in the province. (CBC News)

The mood was festive outside Gym Le Vestiaire in Montreal on Sunday, as gym members gathered and sang "All you need is sports!" to the tune of the Beatles' classic "All you need is love."

The facility was one of several across Quebec that held protests to oppose the provincial government's choice to exclude them from their pandemic reopening plan.

Last week, the province announced a gradual reopening plan that will allow restaurants to open their doors on Monday, followed by theatres and places of worship the following week, among other loosened restrictions. However, there's yet to be a date set for when gyms can reopen.

"The first doors to be reopen should be our doors," said Karim El Hlimi, the co-owner of Gym Le Vestiaire in the Montreal neighbourhood of Villeray and one of the organizers behind the movement. "We're not important in society, we're in last place."

While discussions about physical and mental health have been front and centre during the pandemic, what's been left out is the importance of physical activity that's needed to maintain good health, El Hlimi said.

He helped spur the hashtag #lasantéenpremier (health comes first), so that gyms could connect with each other on social media and mobilize.

Many were initially planning to illegally reopen to prove they can still operate safely, but they held off out of fears they could be fined.

360 Punch, a boxing club in Dorval, was one exception.

Matthew Rusniak is a trainer and the owner of 360 Punch, a boxing club in Dorval. (CBC News)

"It was busy today," said Matthew Rusniak, a trainer and owner of the club. "For the past 24 months, gyms have been forced to close down for 14 of those months. It's been quite brutal.

"Every moment I'm just waiting for the police to march in here and slap me with a big fine and lock us up. Unfortunately, I don't have a choice not to open because if I do remain closed, we'll end up closing our doors for good."

Gyms acting in defiance of the current health measures could also have their requests for provincial aid cancelled, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economy told Radio-Canada. The funds are given out on the condition that businesses forced to close adhere to the ongoing restrictions.

"We're doing this for two reasons: to reduce the number of deaths and to make sure we can keep the situation under control in our hospitals," Premier François Legault said on Sunday when asked about the protests at a news conference announcing a new CAQ candidate in Marie-Victorin.

"I understand that people are fed up and want to be able to go to the gym and throw big parties, but we had nearly 2,900 [COVID-19] cases as of this morning."

People work out at 360 Punch, a boxing club in Dorval. It reopened on Sunday in defiance of provincial health regulations. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio)

No dialogue 

An association representing gym owners in Quebec says it has been trying to begin a dialogue with the province about reopening, but it hasn't had any luck.

"It's not just that the answers aren't satisfactory. It's no answers, no listening, no talking," Gabriel Hardy, the spokesperson for the Quebec chapter of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Hardy, who also owns Le Chalet gym in Quebec City, said the government has been ignoring the issue, "despite the fact that we have sent letters, that we have communicated regularly — not only with public health, but with the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Labour and the sub-ministry of Sport."

The association said it doesn't endorse announcements that have been made by some to reopen illegally.

With files from The Canadian Press, Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Audrey Paris of Radio-Canada