New Jersey Gym Owners Are Desperate to Reopen

In an act of defiance, Joe Logue, a retired Marine, affixed a military gas mask and headphones before beginning his chest-and-arm workout at a New Jersey gym that had gone rogue.

It is illegal for health clubs to be open for anything other than private training sessions in New Jersey, one of only seven states where gyms have been deemed to be so high risk for spreading the coronavirus that they remain either fully or partially closed.

But the owners of Mr. Logue’s gym, Atilis, about 10 miles southeast of Philadelphia in Bellmawr, have repeatedly flouted the governor’s executive order, filing a lawsuit that sought to overturn the shutdown while staging numerous reopening events that are equal parts civil disobedience rallies and publicity stunts.

Mr. Logue was one of the first people to enter the cavernous gym on a recent Saturday morning after owners kicked down plywood that had covered the space where the doors — removed so they could not be padlocked — once stood.

“This is my release,” said Mr. Logue, 28, who said weight lifting had helped him chase away demons that had dogged him since he was injured in 2012 while on duty in Afghanistan. “I was basically drinking every night, fighting. I was getting in a lot of trouble.”

Atilis’s persistent pressure underscores the growing tension between Gov. Philip D. Murphy and another group of business owners in dire straits because of the outbreak: gym owners struggling for survival after nearly five months of a mandated pandemic lockdown.

There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 health and fitness clubs in the United States, including more than 1,100 in New Jersey, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a nonprofit trade group.

All of it smacks of inconsistency to Frank Trumbetti, who bought Atilis Gym last June with his business partner, Ian Smith.

“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to fight for our rights,” Mr. Trumbetti, 51, said. “I don’t comprehend the lack of equal application of the law.”

Gym owners and managers who believe it is time to relax Mr. Murphy’s executive order stress the mental and physical health benefits of exercise. They maintain that there is little difference between their businesses and martial arts, dance and gymnastic studios, which have been operating in New Jersey at 25 percent capacity for more than a month with no reports of an outbreak.

Leslie Adelman Banks, a managing partner of Fitness and Wellness, which runs nine health centers in New Jersey, said the ability to exercise indoors is especially crucial for people already living with medical challenges.

At a facility Fitness and Wellness operates in Pennsylvania, which reopened in June, people with ailments that would put them at high risk if they contracted Covid-19 are determined to use exercise as a way to build their strength, she said.

“They’re the first ones in the door because they are so fearful of their health declining,” Ms. Adelman Banks said during last Thursday’s hearing. “Our M.S. patients. Our Parkinson’s patients. Our cardiac patients.”

“We are a safe haven for them,” she added, “and without coming to us they’re not exercising.”

Jonathan Skolnik, operations director of Center Stage Dance and Theater School in East Brunswick, N.J., said the school has taken an “overly cautious” approach since reopening last month.

All students are required to wear masks. And the studios are misted with a cleaning solution between classes, which are staggered so that the equipment has time to dry, he said.

Jenna Varano, program director at South Jersey Storm Cheerleading in Deptford, said summer camps are up and running and competitive cheerleading squads are practicing with fewer students, heightened safety precautions and waivers that must be signed every two weeks by parents.

“People were reluctant at first,” Ms. Varano said in an interview. “But I think people realize we are doing everything we can. They feel safe.”

Lauren Hard contributed reporting.

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