A South Jersey gym reopened Monday morning in defiance of Gov. Phil Murphy’s coronavirus shutdown orders, drawing a crowd of supporters but little police action, as a borough officer merely warned the group.
The owners of Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, whose recent appearances on Fox News programs drove publicity to the reopening, were later issued a municipal citation.
Around 11 a.m., three hours after the gym opened and long after masses of supporters had gathered, an officer informed the gym’s owners they were operating in violation of an executive order, but then left without further action as supporters of the business cheered.
“Formally, you’re all in violation of the executive order,” said an officer, identified as Capt. Parker by Bellmawr police, looking into the crowd of supporters. “On that note, have a good day, and stay safe.”
The officer did not ask the large crowd to disperse, even though it violated the executive order barring a gathering of more than 10 people. Bellmawr police had been in the parking lot monitoring the crowd all morning.
The crowd erupted in cheers and yelled, “We won!” as the gym’s co-owners, Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti, high-fived each other and pumped their fists in the air.
Less than two hours later, another Bellmawr police officer served Smith and Trumbetti with disorderly conduct citations to appear in Municipal Court. In New Jersey, people issued disorderly conduct charges can face up to six months in jail and hefty fines.
Smith and Trumbetti vowed to keep the gym open.
“I expected this. I actually expected more than this,” said Trumbetti. “We firmly believe that everything we are doing is constitutional. It’s our right, and we have not broken any laws.”
“I didn’t open up today to close tomorrow,” he said.
“Frank and I have been scared this entire time,” said Smith, who made several media appearances, including on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, before Monday’s reopening to question whether big corporations were being prioritized over small businesses. “I’m still scared. We don’t know if we’re out of the woods yet.”
Murphy said this wasn’t the end for Smith and Trumbetti.
“If you show up at that gym again tomorrow, there’s going to be a different reality than showing today,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing. “These aren’t just words. We’ve got to enforce this. But I also don’t want to start World War III.”
“As a result of the direct violation of the terms and conditions set forth [by the executive order], Mr. Trumbetti and Mr. Smith were both charged on a summons with a disorderly person’s offense by the Bellmawr Police Department who had a presence on scene in order to protect the public’s safety and welfare,” the Bellmawr Police Department said in a statement. The department did not respond to further questions.
The borough’s mayor, Chuck Saulter, recognized the protesters’ right to assemble but declined to comment on specifics.
“With respect to the opening of Atilis Gym, from the start, this matter has been handled exclusively and appropriately by law enforcement, including our local police department. I am proud of the manner in which the Bellmawr Police Department conducted themselves this morning as well as the respect shown toward our police officers by the general public,” Saulter said in an emailed statement.
On Twitter, Camden County Freeholder Louis Cappelli said: “The owner of this gym cannot make up his own rules. He is putting us all at greater risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.”
“New Jersey’s law enforcement officers are on the front lines of this pandemic — not just protecting and serving all residents, but also balancing public health and public safety as they enforce the governor’s executive orders,” said Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal in a statement. “Those individuals who violate the governor’s orders make it harder for our officers to do their jobs and they put our officers at risk. I commend law enforcement’s bravery and diligence today and every day.”
Smith and Trumbetti’s supporters, who were standing shoulder to shoulder, mostly unmasked and wearing shirts and hats with messages in support of President Donald Trump, began arriving at 5 a.m. Crowds peaked shortly after 8 a.m., when the gym opened its doors. “Let us get back to work,” people chanted in unison. Many held signs with phrases that included, “My freedom does not end where your fear begins” and “Tyranny is spreading faster than COVID-19.”
A flag symbolizing the Three Percenters, a far-right anti-government group, also flew amid the crowd.
Atilis Gym operated at 20% capacity and allowed only 44 members inside. All members were required to undergo a temperature check and fill out a medical questionnaire and waiver. Only members were allowed in, and the gym was not accepting new sign-ups Monday, owners said.
Inside, equipment was spread out and members were required to wear masks unless in the middle of a set. Each member received a spray bottle to wipe down equipment before and after use.
Members arrived early to secure their place in line. Jen Grasolia of Sicklerville said she was eager to “get some normalcy back.” Grasolia, 47, said she was not worried about the virus because of the cleaning precautions the owners are taking.
Michael Sulit, one of the owners of Fight Fit Fight Strong, which hosts kickboxing classes at Atilis, said working out is part of his and the other members’ lifestyles.
“The best way to survive COVID-19 is to be stronger,” said Sulit. “Why can Home Depot and liquor stores be open, but we can’t work out?”
Atilis was not the only gym in the area that opened against state orders. Transcend Fitness Club in Bucks County opened Saturday to considerably less fanfare. Owner Tommy Coates could not be reached for comment, but Gov. Tom Wolf addressed Transcend’s opening at his daily briefing. Wolf said he wasn’t sure what department regulates gyms, but the facilities risk losing their licenses if they open before the state deems them ready. He did not mention police enforcement.
Ultimately, he said, he hopes people will self-enforce the same way they did with other aspects of his stay-at-home orders. “Again, we have a timeline that is being set not by the state, but by the virus,” Wolf said.
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.