THUNDER BAY — The founder of the Underground Gym says he learned only after he opened the doors that current COVID-19 restrictions prohibit the use of the gym equipment.
"We made a huge boo-boo by letting kids skip and hit the bag without a mask. A complete misunderstanding on the restrictions placed upon us under section 82.20" of the Reopening Ontario Act, Peter Panetta said in a social media post last week.
Panetta apologized in the same post.
But in an interview Monday with TBNewswatch, he said he's "still baffled" by the restrictions.
"I was, first of all, under the impression that we were considered an essential service. They've clarified that to say that we are not," Panetta explained.
He said he heard from a Thunder Bay District Health Unit inspector shortly after the news coverage of the opening of the Underground Gym at its new location on Victoria Avenue on March 19.
"Once he saw the coverage of my kids jumping rope and stuff like that, he said that's not allowed...They're allowed to jump rope only outside the gym. We have no space outside."
Under the restrictions, Panetta said, the youths "can't do their abs...There's no working out...even someone hitting the heavy bag," adding "How does that contradict the COVID regulations. I don't get that, because there's nobody near the person, they're just hitting the bag by themselves."
He said "We're talking exercise. When [the inspector] said 'you can't use your gym,' I honestly thought he meant we can't use the weight machines, that kind of stuff."
With the gym's equipment out of bounds for now, Panetta said the facility can only be used as a hangout.
"Some of them are painting. Some of them are drawing. We sit and talk. Whatever they have to say, we just chat about it."
The inspector was also concerned about the news coverage showing youths not wearing masks, but Panetta said "you can't exercise with a mask on."
He said that as a result of what he learned in that phone call, he's following the COVID-19 protocol to the letter, but still believes his facility is "way too restricted."
He feels the gym provides an essential service because it serves youths whose personal circumstances put their health and safety at risk.
"I'm dealing with youth that are extremely vulnerable. All I care about is the children's welfare. Are we really losing children by COVID or because of COVID restrictions? I see the latter."
In response to an inquiry from TBNewswatch, the TBDHU issued a brief statement.
It said the Underground Gym was permitted to open "provided that the gym area and any recreational equipment not be used, which is consistent with all other fitness facilities."
The statement added that the facility was allowed to open under regulation 82/20 which permits this "as it provides food, shelter and safety for the protection of individuals."
The TBDHU said it also provided guidance on other appropriate procedures that should be followed including cleaning, mask use and other measures.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story has been updated to include additional information provided by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit