National news cameras were pointed Monday at Bellmawr’s Atilis Gym, which opened to crowds of supporters despite New Jersey’s shutdown order for nonessential businesses. The same day, a gym in Pennsylvania, 25 miles away outside Philadelphia, opened for the first time since March, too.

Members of PWRBLD Gym in Conshohocken this week booked 90-minute time slots to work out, ensuring no more than a dozen people were in the space at once. The owners of Atilis were cited, and a Superior Court judge Friday ordered the gym closed as long as the state’s shutdown order remains in effect. But PWRBLD (pronounced power build) owner Collin Whitney hasn’t heard a peep from law enforcement.

While reports have sprouted of businesses reopening in defiance of their state’s shutdown orders — a diner here, a hair salon there — gyms have led the way in the Philadelphia area, whether they flung open the doors before hordes of news cameras or quietly notified their members. Some have coordinated, and Whitney said he’s been in contact with the owners of Atilis “for weeks.”

The facilities with the highest profile have been a handful of independently owned gyms with a certain adrenaline-fueled edge, their owners being mostly men concerned about what they see as government overreach. Whitney said his reopening isn’t a political statement, but he did start selling T-shirts with the PWRBLD Gym logo and the Gadsden flag, which includes the “Don’t Tread on Me” phrase that dates to the American Revolution and is a favorite among the tea party.

He said he’s defying executive orders put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf because he can’t continue to bleed cash and feels his constitutional rights “are being overlooked.” He also isn’t asking employees or members to wear masks, though a state executive order requires businesses do so. And while polls show more than eight in 10 Americans are concerned lifting restrictions will lead to new COVID-19 infections, Whitney said many of his members are supportive.

“If we get fined or cited, I will sleep better for the rest of my life knowing that I tried,” he said, “and that I gave my gym a chance.”

At least nine gyms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reopened, including Prime Intensity Training, which has a location a few blocks from PWRBLD and another in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, which this week started again offering its CrossFit-style classes in person. A North Philly martial-arts gym reopened Monday, as did Transcend Fitness Club in Bucks County, its owner telling CBS3: “It’s a do-or-die situation.” One Lackawanna County spot reopened, then reclosed after being cited four times in two days.

In Pennsylvania, gyms are not allowed to open when counties are in the “yellow” phase of reopening, but can open once counties enter the “green” phase. On Friday, Wolf announced 17 counties will move to the green phase by May 29; all are concentrated in north and central Pennsylvania.

On the West Coast, a California gym owner was handcuffed and arrested for reopening, then opened up again. The Washington state attorney general sued two gyms that remained open despite the state’s orders.

Tommy Doherty, 20, of Scranton, Pa., wears a mask as he racks weights at 10X Fitness. The gym opened on Monday for free use by the community in defiance of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's statewide ban on the operation of gyms and fitness centers due to COVID-19.
Christopher Dolan / AP
Tommy Doherty, 20, of Scranton, Pa., wears a mask as he racks weights at 10X Fitness. The gym opened on Monday for free use by the community in defiance of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's statewide ban on the operation of gyms and fitness centers due to COVID-19.

So why gyms? In addition to business concerns, there’s a machismo factor when it comes to reopening, as there also is with getting into shape and protecting oneself, said Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. That plays out when shutdown protesters stand and move about in large crowds without masks, behavior that experts say is dangerous as the coronavirus continues to spread.

“This idea that ‘I’m indestructible,’ it certainly is something that we see in masculinity more broadly,” Metzl said. “The problem during the pandemic is, people aren’t just putting themselves at risk. They are putting others at risk.”

But the owners say they don’t want their businesses to become permanent victims of the pandemic, which has decimated the fitness industry and left some operators, many of whom have laid off entire staffs, worried consumer behavior will change out of their favor well beyond any government-mandated shutdown.

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade association, doesn’t condone breaking the law, but has lobbied Pennsylvania’s governor to allow clubs to reopen, saying they are “ready, willing, and able to open safely and thoughtfully.”

IHRSA spokesperson Meredith Poppler said gyms and clubs have been “uniquely hit." They were among the first businesses mandated to close “and unlike restaurants that can still do take-out or delivery, a closed club has no income.” Some have charged for online classes, but for most gym owners still paying rent on their spaces, it isn’t covering the bills.

Whitney said he and other gym owners believe they should be deemed essential, given the purpose is health and fitness.

Public health officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey disagree. Experts say COVID-19 spreads quickly in poorly ventilated spaces where people are breathing heavily, shouting, or talking, and one study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a coronavirus cluster associated with dance fitness classes in South Korea, concluding that “intense physical exercise in densely populated sports facilities could increase risk for infection.”

Inherently, politics is at play. Fitness clubs have reopened in 12 states, all but one run by a Republican governor. In Pennsylvania, gyms and “indoor recreation” facilities can’t reopen when a county is in the “yellow phase," which allows for most businesses to open with new safety procedures. But gyms were included in the first phase in the Trump administration’s reopening plan, reportedly after lobbying from IHRSA and other groups.

A view into the open garage bays of Prime Intensity Fitness in Conshohocken, Pa. on May 19, 2020. The gym is operating against an order from Gov. Wolf.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A view into the open garage bays of Prime Intensity Fitness in Conshohocken, Pa. on May 19, 2020. The gym is operating against an order from Gov. Wolf.

And then there’s the political nature of disobeying shutdown orders. President Donald Trump has encouraged protests aimed at governors and has been cavalier about following CDC guidelines, including refusing to don a mask. Supporters of the president, most not wearing masks, gathered outside Atilis after the owner appeared on Fox News, and the spectacle outside the gym attracted far-right antigovernment groups.

It’s not clear how law enforcement will handle the defiance. The owner of Atilis was cited, as were members — including one taken into police custody. Their legal fees will be largely covered by a crowdfunding effort that has garnered the owners more than $40,000. New Jersey has generally been more bullish on issuing citations for defying the state’s orders than Pennsylvania, where state police say they have aimed instead to warn and educate.

Atilis Gym in South Jersey reopened its doors on Monday in defiance of state-issued stay-at-home orders, drawing support from dozens of demonstrators.
Raishad Hardnett/Staff
Atilis Gym in South Jersey reopened its doors on Monday in defiance of state-issued stay-at-home orders, drawing support from dozens of demonstrators.

When asked if Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro would consider civil action against gyms that reopen like in Washington state, a spokesperson referred questions to Wolf’s office, which wouldn’t say one way or another. Spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger noted Wolf’s comments earlier this month when he said businesses that reopen against his orders face losing insurance coverage and any relevant state operating license.

“Reopening businesses too early,” Kensinger said, “will only extend the length of the destruction of lives and livelihoods by the pandemic.”