The defiant owners of Atilis Gym kicked in plywood panels that had sealed the entrance to their business since Monday, drawing cheers from a group of flag-waving supporters.
“What really upsets me is it had to come to this,” said Ian Smith, a partner in the gym who said a long-running dispute with the state over pandemic restrictions had become “personal.”
He urged his listeners to resist government-ordered shutdowns like those imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy during the pandemic emergency.
“When he knocks us off, he’s going to come for somebody else,” Smith claimed of Murphy.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which has repeatedly obtained court orders for the gym’s closing, could not be reached for immediate comment.
The law enforcement agency has told a judge that Atilis Gym is ignoring an order to limit indoor operations to individualized instruction on an appointment-only basis.
Authorities closed the gym before dawn Monday, when they charged Smith and his partner Frank Trumbetti with contempt and disorderly persons offenses. The two men were living in the gym and had removed a front door in an attempt to foil a state lockdown.
Smith and Trumbetti, who had patrons line up with social distancing for pre-workout temperature checks on Saturday, assert the gym is taking adequate measures to protect public health.
But supporters showed little apparent concern for pandemic precautions, with almost none wearing masks and many clustering together.
At one point, a bare-faced Smith emerged from the gym to shake hands and pose for photos with supporters.
About 25 people were watching as Smith and Trumbetti knocked down the panels shortly after 7 a.m., but the crowd roughly tripled in size over the next hour.
Robert Schmidt said he left his Long Island home around 4 a.m. to show support for the South Jersey business.
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“You’ve got to stand up, stand strong,” said Schmidt, who wore a T-shirt with an American flag and the words, “I don’t kneel.”
One man arrived in a pickup truck emblazoned with an expletive aimed at Gov. Phil Murphy. A similar message appeared on T-shirts sold to raise funds for the gym.
A sign on a front door, which was placed on its hinges shortly after the partners broke through the barrier, carried a message for authorities.
“All government officials must call the front desk for permission to enter this facility,” it said.
The gym dispute became the subject of a national debate Friday, when an Ohio congressman raised it at a hearing on the federal government’s response to the pandemic.
Rep. Jim Jordan questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, about the charges against Smith and Trumbetti.
“My bet is, if these two individuals that owned this gym … were outside protesting, they’d be just fine,” said the conservative congressman. “But because they were inside the gym … they got arrested. Do you think that’s OK?”
“I don’t understand what you’re asking me as a public health official to opine on who should get arrested or not,” said Fauci. “That’s not my position.”
The Attorney General’s Office most recently obtained a July 24 court order that allowed officials to close the rogue gym on behalf of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Smith and Trumbetti say the business has since converted to a private membership association.
The gym, which was initially closed in March under a statewide emergency order, opened without permission on May 18.
It was padlocked under a court order on May 22, but was allowed to reopen on June 15 to accommodate two retail businesses located inside, court records say.
In the most recent ruling, a state judge found the gym in contempt of a court order that limited its indoor operations.
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