NJ Gym Cleared To Open After COVID-19 Shutdown Brawl

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (August 31, 2020, 3:43 PM EDT) -- A New Jersey gym has been given the green light by the state health commissioner to open its indoor spaces to the public Tuesday after months of legal battles over its defiance of COVID-19 measures, but the business will still have to follow a series of protocols designed to control the spread of the virus.

With the rate of reported new COVID-19 cases dropping in the Garden State, Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Friday in an order that Atilis Gym in Bellmawr "will be permitted to open its indoor premises to the public only as long as it remains in compliance with the health and safety guidelines and standards" issued by her office.

The order stated, however, that it "does not purport to impact Atilis' mercantile licensure with the Borough of Bellmawr." The municipality revoked the gym's business license about three weeks ago after it continued to defy coronavirus-related orders.

The borough clerk in Bellmawr declined to comment Monday. Counsel for the gym did not immediately provide comment Monday.

The latest twist in the high-profile brawl — which has led to criminal charges against the gym's owners and a $134,000 civil judgment — comes as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday signed an executive order permitting gyms, fitness centers and amusement and water parks to open their indoor premises to the public as of 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Such businesses must follow certain COVID-19 requirements, including limiting their indoor occupancy to 25% of the maximum capacity, excluding staff members; sanitizing all equipment between uses; and requiring workers and customers to wear face coverings while inside except when doing so would harm a person's health or when the person is under two years old, state officials said.

"Gyms are among the most challenging indoor environments to prevent the transmission of COVID-19," Murphy said Thursday in a statement. "Given where we are in this fight and the overwhelming personal responsibility demonstrated by gym owners and gym members over the past several months, we can confidently take this important step on our road back."

The legal fight between the gym and the state kicked off in May with a state lawsuit and a related federal action after the gym opened in defiance of Murphy's nonessential business ban during the pandemic. A federal judge on June 19 reasoned that the fight belonged in state court.

The governor later eased restrictions on gyms, saying they could offer "individualized indoor instruction by appointment only where an instructor is offering training to an individual, and the individual's immediate family members, household members, caretakers, or romantic partners," according to a June 26 executive order.

If multiple simultaneous instructions took place, they had to happen in separate rooms or be separated by a floor-to-ceiling barrier, the executive order said.

On July 20, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert T. Lougy directed Atilis Gym to comply with those modified rules. Four days later, the judge held the business in contempt after the state filed a motion detailing continued noncompliance that was unearthed by health department inspectors and a surveillance team.

Atilis Gym co-owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti were then arrested July 27 on charges of contempt, obstruction and violation of the New Jersey Disaster Control Act, but were later released.

Soon after, the state asked Judge Lougy to impose sanctions for the gym's ongoing non-compliance with the judge's July 24 contempt order. On Aug.18, the judge granted that application and hit the gym with a $134,000 judgment.

--Additional reporting by Jeannie O'Sullivan. Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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