The New Prohibition: Speakeasy Gyms Emerge In The US

  • The ingenuity that people put into shirking rules intended to keep them from dying really is astounding

The speakeasy was an unintended side effect of the US prohibition laws on alcohol, in place between 1920 and 1933. Since then, it has become a cultural icon, and many modern bars and restaurants are modeled after the infamous speakeasy.

For those less familiar with American history, the speakeasy is essentially an illegal bar. When the US banned alcohol, they began to pop up like mushrooms after rain, serving illicit drinks to thirsty and daring customers.


With the COVID-19 pandemic closing a large number of businesses, the US is now seeing a phenomenon that is very similar to the creation of the speakeasy. This time, though, shady business owners are opening underground gyms, instead of bars.

According to an NPR report, secret gyms that shirk the pandemic quarantine rules are showing up all over the country. They serve a clientele that puts more weight on pumping iron than protecting public – and their own – health.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard University who has studied prohibitions all over the world for 30 years, said that illegal gyms were more or less inevitable. Such is human nature, according to Miron.

“Prohibitions don’t eliminate things. They drive them underground,” he summarized.

Translation: “The back door’s unlocked, come on in.”

‘We’re Not Open’

To provide an example, the NPR article recounts the tale of Evelyn, an immigration lawyer in San Francisco. She was on her way to attend a meeting at a foreign consulate, when the security guards told her she couldn’t bring her backpack into the building.

Pressed for time, Evelyn went looking for a place to leave her bag. She noticed a gym, which had its roll-down metal barrier in front of the door slightly ajar.

She crawled into the gym and found a group of people working out. At the sight of the woman in a business suit, they all fell dead silent.

When Evelyn explained that she was just looking for a place to stash her bag for an hour or two, everybody relaxed. She noted her surprise that the gym was open, given that California had officially ordered them to close.

The answer she got surprised her. “Oh, we’re not open,” one of the trainers said.

‘Bizarre’ Clientele

While Evelyn wasn’t looking to exercise and stumbled upon the speakeasy gym by mistake, the story is different for Christina, a paralegal from Tucson, Arizona. She has been going to her gym regularly all this time, in second-worst afflicted state in the US.

Only, she hasn’t. Not officially, at least, since the gym is supposed to be closed.

She told NPR that her gym was so small that pretty much everybody knew everybody. After Arizona ordered gyms to close in April, her gym’s owner texted Christina.

The text said that the gym was still “open” and she should feel free to come in. When she finally decided to take the risk and go, she found some ten people there that she’d never seen before.

They were new gym members that had just joined after every other gym closed down. Naturally, none of them were wearing masks or social distancing.

“These are the typical gym bros. They’re grunting and using all the equipment, taking selfies in the mirror, flexing their triceps. It’s bizarre,” said Christina, who kept her last name a secret so that she wouldn’t be considered a snitch.

Christina is in her 30s and in good health, so she thought she could risk the gym-speakeasy-um.

“One of the few things that keeps me sane is going to the gym,” she said. Maybe now she’ll reconsider.

A Real Catch-22

But as reckless as these underground gyms are, Miron said that they’re the dictionary definition of unintended prohibition side effects. Due to the nature of the COVID-19 measures, they’re basically acting as the same kind of a catalyst as prohibition.

Miron explained that pushing a market into the shadows, quality control goes down in equal measure. He used drugs as an example – when drugs are illegal, underground dealers are free to mix whatever they like into their dope since there’s no other option for the users.

“When you drive something underground, your ability to regulate it goes away,” he said.

This is precisely what Christina said happened at her gym. After every other gym in the state closed down, the underground one doubled its membership.

Of course, the owner racked up the membership fees. The lifting maniacs bought in, since they had no other place to go.

And you can be sure that the owner is not going to chase them away by enforcing any kind of disease control rules.

Poor quality product sold at exorbitant prices. Miron is right, it’s the speakeasy all over again.

He added that the whole thing is pretty much a catch-22. The longer the COVID-19 quarantine continues, the more likely it is that gym enthusiasts are going to embrace the illegal options.

But then again, the more they crowd into the small, poor ventilated workout spaces, the more likely they are to catch the coronavirus. Which, in turn, increases the need for quarantine measures.

Miron doesn’t have the answers on how to solve the situation. He’s just noting the patterns.

Let’s just hope people won’t reminisce about the underground gyms as fondly as they do about the prohibition-era speakeasies.

What do you think? Underground gyms, yay or nay? Let us know in the comments!

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