Owners of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr kicked down the plywood boards covering their business’ doorway Saturday morning and ushered in dozens of clients for workouts, the latest move in a months-long standoff with government officials over New Jersey’s coronavirus-related restrictions.

Owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti allowed 40 to 50 customers to work out in the gym at once, which Smith said was less than 25% of the building’s capacity. As customers waited in line Saturday morning, many said they couldn’t wait to get back to their regular workouts.

Smith acknowledged it was likely that law enforcement would soon arrive to force them to close again, as has happened several times since Atilis reopened in May. At a meeting Tuesday, Bellmawr officials will consider revoking the gym’s business license, according to a letter Smith received.

“Gov. Murphy has weaponized the police force against us over and over,” Smith said. “I think he looks foolish, the way he’s treating us — he’s pulling out all the stops. You have to ask, How far will one man go to destroy a small business?”

Members of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr enter the gym to work out on Saturday.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Members of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr enter the gym to work out on Saturday.

Atilis, which has become a symbol of the frustration some residents and small-business owners feel over the state’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, closed in March along with other gyms, restaurants, and a range of businesses that were ordered to cease operation to control the virus’ spread.

In May, riding a wave of publicity from a tour of several Fox News appearances and support from Atilis members, the owners opened the gym. The fight has escalated: Last month, they were held in contempt of court after a Superior Court judge in Camden ruled that Atilis must comply with an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy that limits indoor gym use to individual training sessions.

Smith and Trumbetti took the doors off the hinges to prevent the state from changing the locks again. On Monday they were arrested, each charged with contempt, obstruction, and violation of a disaster-control act. The Camden County Sheriff’s Office boarded up the entrance to the gym.

Around 8 a.m. Saturday, Smith and Trumbetti kicked and forced in the boards as supporters and gym members cheered them on, then replaced the doors on their hinges.

Atilis Gym supporters gather as the owners force entry back into the facility Saturday morning.
DAVE HERNANDEZ
Atilis Gym supporters gather as the owners force entry back into the facility Saturday morning.

Several dozen people watched from the parking lot, many waving American flags and listening to patriotic music blasting from speakers in front of the gym. Several attendees had traveled from other parts of New Jersey, and some waved anti-Murphy signs or wore pro-Trump accessories.

At one point, after a song expressing support for President Donald Trump, Smith asked a supporter who was managing the music to ensure that no partisan music be played. “Not everybody is on the same page,” he said. “We don’t talk politics in the gym.”

Smith said he and Trumbetti spent thousands of dollars implementing safety regulations based on what other gyms have been asked to follow. Inside the air-conditioned facility, clients receive contactless temperature screenings, are asked to sign waivers, and are given their own bottles of spray disinfectant to use while moving among machines.

Masks are not required, unlike in gyms that have reopened in neighboring states such as Pennsylvania. Smith said that an air purifier has been installed and that no COVID-19 cases have been traced to the facility despite logging more than 13,000 visits from members in recent weeks.

“You can do this safely,” he said. “You can’t say that all gyms have bad ventilation. Some might — but to put them all in one category shows you don’t understand discrepancies and nuance. It shows you’re not actually interested in helping small businesses.”

Atilis members who used the gym Saturday said the owners were doing a good job of managing the health risks of working out. Joe Wickersham of Audubon, who worked out Saturday morning, said it was big enough inside for members to keep their distance.

“It’s great what they’re doing, and it’s a shame it came to this,” said Wickersham, 55. “Obviously, the governor is just picking and choosing what businesses can open.”