Gyms open during pandemic to defy state restrictions, insisting they are ‘essential’ businesses

Last week, when authorities gave Gilbert a new order to close immediately, he refused. Dozens of people snaked out of the open fitness center on Monday, waiting to work out indoors in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve got to follow my heart,” he told KUSI last month. “Working out in a gym is just more than muscles. … It’s a lifestyle, it’s not a one hit and you’re done. You can’t take this away from us.”

Many public health experts say gyms can be a dangerous vector for the disease, but these fitness enthusiasts insist on keeping their facilities open for a mix of health, legal and business reasons. Their clients need to stay in shape, they say, their employees need to earn a paycheck, and their businesses cannot be unfairly singled out — even as the pandemic has killed at least 159,000 people in the United States.

In Oceanside, Calif., one gym owner will head to court next month after he was arrested in May for reopening in violation of county health rules, while a facility near Sacramento was fined $2,500 refusing to close its doors. A six-location chain in Bakersfield has even resumed accepting new members as its owners claim they are running an “essential business.”

The owner of one gym in the Philadelphia suburbs has so frequently defied state rules that he has become a mainstay on Fox News, declaring himself a “thorn in the side” of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in one recent segment on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

In San Diego, Boulevard Fitness’s Gilbert argued that keeping gyms open actually works in the interests of public health. “I don’t want to sound like Hulk Hogan, but that’s fact. You work out, you exercise, you’re going to build your immune system to help fight disease,” he told KUSI, noting physical activity can also help people with their mental health during quarantine.

Contrary to his assertion, many infectious-disease specialists say that working out inside a gym is one of the highest-risk activities to perform, particularly in areas seeing a rapid spread of the coronavirus. Many young people who were otherwise healthy and had no preexisting conditions have also been killed by covid-19.

“People may be exercising, breathing deeply, producing more of these covid infected droplets that could spread from person to person,” Kathryn Anderson of SUNY Upstate Medical University told WSKG. “There are a lot more shared surfaces in terms of weights, yoga mats and even treadmills.”

While California rules allow most businesses — including gyms — to continue operating outdoors, Gilbert said such a mandate disadvantages Boulevard Fitness, which has limited outdoor space. A renovated skate park that once hosted the likes of Tony Hawk, it sits on a busy thoroughfare in the University Heights neighborhood.

A longtime manager at the gym, Gilbert shelled out to buy the business in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, he said, as a gamble he predicted would pay out “tremendously.”

In mid-June, things appeared to be looking up. With the rate of infection appearing to point downward, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) allowed gyms to reopen if customers wore face masks and the fitness centers used rigorous disinfection practices.

Gilbert happily complied, he said, capping the space at 50 percent capacity, adding new equipment and rolling out temperature checks for each customer as well as new cleaning procedures.

But when California rapidly became one of the country’s newest hot spots, and Newsom again ordered fitness facilities to shut down on July 13, he refused, calling the second mandate “unlawful.”

After staying open, Boulevard Fitness received its first cease and desist order from San Diego County health officials on July 21.

About a week later, San Diego police conducted an inspection, finding about 25 people working out inside the fitness center and confirming Gilbert had received the order, KNSD reported. Many of the clients working out had their faces exposed and were not social distancing, authorities said.

Then authorities struck back. “Despite repeated efforts to educate and enforce State and local law at this property, Boulevard Fitness is currently in noncompliance,” said a second order, delivered to Gilbert on Aug. 6. “The failure to safely operate is an imminent health and safety risk.”

According to the mandate, Gilbert could face fines or jail time if he does not comply.

Yet on Monday, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, a long line of people in workout clothes snaked outside the front door, waiting to be let in one at a time.

Asked by a KUSI reporter what he would tell police if they showed up to fine him, Gilbert said he would gladly pay up. But not without making them an offer first.

“If they want to work out and get healthy,” he said, “their day pass is on me.”

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