Health Club Operators Reopen in Defiance of State Orders

On March 17, Jacob Lewis and Mark Lyons temporarily closed The Gym locations in Victorville, California, in compliance with a directive from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to close nonessential businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19. But on May 1, the two reopened their clubs despite the directive on gyms still being in place.

Their actions led to receipt of a May 6 letter from the County of San Bernadino threatening a fine or jail time if the owners didn’t close. In response to that letter, Lewis and Lyons sent the county and the governor a copy of the constitution, Lyons told Club Industry. No other action from the county has been received yet, but Lewis and Lyons hired a lawyer and are filing a lawsuit against the county, contending that the order to close their facilities is unconstitutional, Lyons said.

California is one of 30 states that have yet to allow gyms to reopen as of May 21, according to this New York Times site tracking state reopenings. Increasingly, gym owners in these states have been defying state mandates and reopening anyway. Their efforts may be buoyed by a May 20 ruling by an Ohio judge in favor of 35 Ohio gyms that sued the state for not allowing gyms to reopen. According to the ruling, state and county health officials cannot take action against gyms who reopen despite Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine setting May 26 as the date for Ohio gyms to reopen. 

Lewis and Lyons have filed a lawsuit of their own against the County of San Bernadino contending that the directive to close is unconstitutional.

Lewis and Lyons are former World Gym franchisees who partnered with two other former World Gym franchisees, George Jackson and Rich Stevenson, on the brand The Gym after leaving the World Gym fold. Lewis and Lyons operate the two clubs in Victorville while Jackson and Stevenson operate a club in Vista, California, and one in Pacific Beach, California. Jackson and Stevenson closed the Vista club on March 17 due to state orders but kept the Pacific Beach location open until the sheriff’s department forced them to close on March 19.  

The Vista location reopened on May 1 along with the two Victorville clubs. They remain open in defiance of state directives, but the Pacific Beach club remains closed, according to Lyons.

In between the temporary closure date and the reopening of the three locations on May 1, the company lost at least $600,000 in revenue, Lyons said.

The company owns its own buildings, so rent was not an issue. One of the locations was able to get PPP funding. The others are in the queue for it, Lyons said.

Money is not the main reason for reopening, Lyons said. Instead, reopening was spurred by the stories that members shared about how much the health club had changed their lives, including an older, formerly overweight member who told them the gym was an essential business because it had helped him lose weight and get through depression, and a military veteran who told them the gym helped him with his post traumatic stress disorder.

“Jacob called me and said, ‘We are opening May 1,’ and he isn’t going to let an unconstitutional order keep the members from working out,” Lyons said. “That is also the time that the federal government stated gyms are in phase one and that start[ed] May 1. They released guidelines for gyms to follow, and that we have.”

The Gym is following the 50 percent occupancy guideline as well as not hosting classes and keeping locker rooms closed except for restroom use, Lyons said. They also have doubled their cleaning staff and placed hand sanitizer stations throughout the clubs. Members are not required to wear masks.

“We opened for the people and for the community and our staff,” Lyons said. “We are huge fans of this country and the constitution. We believe it is by far the dumbest unconstitutional thing that could have happened to tell a group of people you're not essential, your lifestyle or career do not matter.”

The Gym in Victorville has wholesale grocery stores on both sides of it with hundreds of people going in and out their doors during the closure, he said. Nearby car dealerships also were open.

“But we can’t have 200 members inside maintaining their mental and physical health?” he said.

During the first week of reopening, the Victorville locations had about 30 percent of its normal check-ins for this time of year, Lyons said.

Metroflex Gym in California

Lewis and Lyons aren’t the only California gym owners to defy California’s orders. Lou Uridel, owner of Metroflex Gym in Oceanside, California, which is north of San Diego, reopened his health club on May 8 and was arrested on May 10 and charged with a misdemeanor for violating health orders, according to an Associated Press article. He was released after an hour and reopened his gym on May 13.  

The Oceanside Police Department told the Associated Press that Uridel would be cited for every day the gym is open with the maximum fine being $1,000 per day or the possibility of 90 days in jail.

The arrest is being reviewed.

Uridel told the Associated Press that he had to reopen because one third of his membership had cancelled and he wasn’t sure his club, which is only a year and a half old, would survive.

He was requiring six-foot distancing between people, cleaning equipment after use, closing the showers and requiring members to wear masks. He also closes the gym every 90 minutes for a deep cleaning. 

Atilis Gym in New Jersey

One of the highest profile cases of gym owner defiance is in New Jersey where Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti, co-owners of Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey, on May 18 reopened live on the “Fox and Friends” show on the Fox News channel. Police watched the reopening and later charged the owners with disorderly conduct offenses, according to the Washington Post.

Smith and Trumbetti have a court date in early June with Smith facing a $2,000 fine and six months in jail, their attorney, James Mermigis, told The Washington Post.

Although the New Jersey governor allowed some non-essential businesses to reopen on May 18 with certain restrictions, gyms were not included.

When Smith appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” later in the week, he said that he reopened his gym because “I’ve watched people lose their jobs, and there’s no progress moving forward. We’re ready to take action ourselves, and we have thought long and hard about it. All of our actions come from the heart, with not our best interests in mind, but what we feel is the greater good for ourselves, our community, and the state and nation as a whole.”

On May 20, the New Jersey Health Department ordered an emergency closure order of the gym, according to a report by local TV station 6 ABC Action News.

The order states that "indoor gyms and fitness centers present particularly high-risk settings for the spread of COVID-19, in part because customers of these facilities engage in physical activities that increase the customers’ respiratory activity, which in turn can increase the amount of respiratory droplets or aerosols in a confined setting; and in part because these facilities foster 3 prolonged and close person-to-person contact, including but not limited to through the use of personal trainers and spotters, and because they necessitate the communal-use of equipment and other items, such as barbells, dumbbells, and treadmill and cross trainer grips, that may harbor the virus as, according to the National Institutes of Health, the virus may live on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours."

The owners told the TV station that they are talking to lawyers about their options, but will remain closed for now with the possibility of reopening May 21. However, reopening may put them at risk of having their business seized or having criminal charges filed against them.

10X Fitness in Pennsylvania

On March 19, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all businesses, including gyms to close. Gyms in the state are not expected to reopen until June 4, but that didn’t stop the owners of 10X Fitness, a club in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, from reopening the club on May 11, according to ABC News. The owners, which operated the club as a 24-hour facility, reduced hours of operation to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and allowed just 40 people in the 9,000-square-foot club at a time for one-hour workouts. However, police issued the club four citations within two days, and on May 13, the club closed again.

On its Facebook page, the gym said it would work with local government to explore options for reopening.

Club Life in Vermont and New York

In Vermont, the state attorney general’s office filed on May 15 a civil lawsuit and temporary restraining order against Club Fitness, Rutland, Vermont, and its owner, Sean Manovill, enjoining him from conducting any in-person, indoor operations at any fitness center until after the governor’s executive order is lifted. Health clubs have been closed in Vermont since March 23 due to an order from the governor. Manovill had reopened the club on May 5, but closed it after receiving a cease and desist, according to the attorney general. He then reopened the club on May 15, and after an officer observed patrons exercising without masks and not staying six feet apart plus no signage advising social distancing and masks, the restraining order was filed.

Manovill then began operating his club as an outdoor facility by moving fitness equipment outside. On May 20, the attorney general sent a letter to Manovill noting that operating outdoors is allowable under the order as long as he follows certain protocols, including limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people (staff and members), cleaning equipment between users, wearing of masks by staff and members plus staying six feet apart.

A second Club Life facility, this one in Valatie, New York, also reopened against the governor’s orders and received on May 14 a cease and desist order while the owner was issued an appearance ticket from the Kinderhook (New York) Town Supervisor. Additional violations could lead to fines and state and local authorities removing people from the club. 

IHRSA’s Take

IHRSA, the trade association for commercial health clubs, does not encourage or condone breaking the law, Meredith Poppler, IHRSA spokesperson, told Club Industry. IHRSA has been working since the beginning of the lockdown to help clubs and states reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. 

IHRSA has communicated with governors’ offices to share that clubs are ready, willing, and able to open safely and thoughtfully, according to Poppler. IHRSA has provided a four-prong framework to clubs to work with their states.

“Our hope is that the states that have not yet allowed clubs to open will see the successful openings in other states and follow quickly,” she said.