The New Jersey Department of Health closed Atilis Gym in Bellmawr indefinitely on Thursday after it reopened this week in defiance of coronavirus shutdown orders.

“Although Atilis is purporting to take its own measures to address COVID-19 transmission, these particular measures do not sufficiently address the risks,” read the order, signed Wednesday by state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and left at the gym.

On Thursday morning, gym owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti posted a video to Facebook and Instagram showing them arriving to find the notice on their door. In the clip, one of the owners calls the signs an example of “Gov. Murphy’s dirty tricks, playing with his power in the Health Department.”

In a previous social media post, they discussed a sewage problem that occurred at the gym late Wednesday, and later suggested the shutdown was somehow related to that issue. In the Department of Health notice, there was no mention of sewage.

Hours after the discovery of the notice, Smith appeared on Fox News to discuss what he called a government “scare tactic.”

“This is just a bump in the road for us,” he said. “Murphy does not have the legal precedent to shut us down, so he’s resorted to calling in the Health Department. However, all of these messages put here on the wall from the Health Department were put on without them ever stepping inside to take a look at the facilities.”

The owners said the gym would be closed Thursday and planned to reopen Friday. A cleaning crew was working on the property, they said.

A Department of Health spokesperson responded to a reporter’s questions with a copy of the order, which said the gym must remain closed to all, including members, until further notice. If Atilis doesn’t comply, it would be subject to criminal and civil sanctions, the order states.

Several gyms across the Philadelphia region have moved to reopen despite Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s closures of nonessential businesses. The move by Atilis was the most high-profile. Its owners were interviewed several times on Fox News and became champions of protesters who say state governments have overreached and infringed on their freedoms with nonessential business closures.

On Thursday, Smith also addressed a photo circulating the internet, which showed him using a megaphone with a sticker supporting the New Jersey European Heritage Association, a white supremacist organization.

Smith said on Facebook that he has no connection to the group, and that he was handed the megaphone to use briefly and didn’t see the sticker.

Atilis Gym co-owner Ian Smith speaks with supporters outside his gym in Bellmawr.
Matt Rourke / AP
Atilis Gym co-owner Ian Smith speaks with supporters outside his gym in Bellmawr.

“Yesterday, rumors started circulating around social media that I was a white nationalist,” Smith said in a Facebook video Thursday. “These rumors are entirely false and based off of one photograph of me holding a megaphone while addressing the crowd. That megaphone was handed to me, and on it was a sticker that before yesterday I had never seen.

“In no way would I ever support any group linked to hate or racism of any kind," he said. "That is not my message, nor has it ever been.”

Public health experts say indoor facilities like gyms make perfect breeding grounds for the contagious virus, and should remain closed for the time being. Recent polls show more than eight in 10 Americans are concerned that lifting restrictions will lead to new COVID-19 infections.

Atilis’ owners have said they are taking safety measures, including operating at 20% capacity and allowing in only members who had undergone temperature checks and filled out a medical questionnaire.

When the gym opened Monday, police initially informed the owners and supporters that they were violating Murphy’s order, but left without taking action. By Tuesday, however, authorities began cracking down, citing the owners and arresting a member who refused to give police his name.

On Thursday, the owners and their attorney suggested to Fox News that the sewage issue was linked to state efforts to shut them down.

“Gov. Murphy addressed in a news conference yesterday he was going to be enforcing some restrictions on us with the Health Department," Smith said. "We are looking into what happened yesterday. Less than an hour after his news conference, our toilets were backed up.”

It was not immediately clear what ramifications the gym or its owners would face if they defy the Department of Health order.

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said public health remains paramount despite hardships businesses have faced. He urged businesses to follow officials’ guidance on reopening.

“The situation in Bellmawr has not followed that path thus far, and introduces a risk into our community that we cannot afford,” Cappelli said. "I am hopeful that this situation can be resolved cooperatively, and that the gym will be able to welcome back their patrons when, and only when, it has been deemed safe to do so by the State of New Jersey.”