These N.C. gym owners defied Cooper’s order to stay closed amid coronavirus. Here’s why. | Business

When Kosta Velissariou, the owner of Bull & Bear Gym in Fuquay-Varina, learned he wouldn’t be able to reopen his facility in Phase Two of the state’s reopening plan, he decided he had had enough.

At 6 a.m. on May 23, Velissariou, without the fear of punishment, opened his gym and allowed his customers to work out.

He’s been open ever since.

“When you’re not having any revenue come in for two months obviously … not only affects my business but my family,” Velissariou said told The News & Observer. “I can’t not support my family. That’s not going to happen.”

Velissariou is one of a number of gym owners across the state who decided to defy Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest executive order.

On May 22, Cooper announced that, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the state would take a more moderate approach to easing restrictions for people and businesses. In Phase Two, places like restaurants and barbershops were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity. Other places — like gyms and fitness and yoga studios — were ordered to stay closed longer.

Cooper’s executive order also excludes museums and amusement parks, bars and night clubs from opening. Cooper has said the risk of spreading COVID-19 is greater in those types of places.

Early Tuesday afternoon, two employees at Bull & Bear Gym worked the front desk and greeted customers with a smile as they walked through the door. The sounds of weights clanked in the background, as about eight people worked out in the fairly large facility. Those working out lifted alone, spaced from other lifters. They often times wiped down machines after using them.

None wore a mask.

When Cooper first issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March, Velissariou said he kept running his business until local authorities forced him to shut down. They’ve warned him that by reopening he could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. But Velissariou said he’s not worried about that.

“I’m not closing,” he said. “So I made additional keys for my members to open back up in case something happens. My staff has additional keys. I think it’s a class four misdemeanor, but I don’t care.”

Many gym owners across the state expressed similar sentiments.

Tim Saguinsin, the owner of Warrior Tech, an obstacle course fitness training facility in Morrisville, also has been open since last Saturday. He said he received complaints from the public after initially opening his facility, but is working with the local police department to figure out how to be compliant and remain open.

Right now, his customers are currently working out outside. But he said it is impossible to sustain that.

“You can’t just run at 25% capacity and feel like you’re going to survive,” he said.

Gym owners sue Gov. Cooper

A group of gym owners recently formed a Facebook Group called ReOpen NC’s Health Clubs. The group raised more than $20,000 to retain attorney Chuck Kitchen and sued Cooper on Wednesday in Wake County Superior Court for not allowing them to reopen.

In the lawsuit, the group argues that by ordering their facilities closed, Cooper is depriving them of their right to earn a living and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

They are asking that a temporary restraining order be issued, preventing Cooper from enforcing his executive order, according to the lawsuit.

Jason Morgan, the owner of Muscleworx Fitness, in Wilmington also sued Cooper on Wednesday in New Hanover Superior Court for similar reasons.

One fitness studio forced to close

About a mile and a half from Bear & Bull Gym, John Schell was sitting outside his own fitness studio, Schell Shock BJJ Martial Arts, where he teaches jiujitsu.

About 30 minutes later, he began teaching a jiujitsu class of about 15 students.

“I do this because I love doing it, because I love helping other people,” he told the N&O.

Schell, who opened the facility in 2018, teaches jiujitsu part-time. He said when Cooper issued the stay-at-home order in March, he closed his facility. Some of his customers pleaded with him to open, he said. Some needed it for their mental health.

He, too, expected to reopen his business during Phase Two. But when Cooper announced that gyms and other indoor exercise facilities would not be part of the latest phase, Schell made the decision to open anyway.

“There were other businesses that were open, but what I consider to be an essential business like fitness, that helps with not only mental but physical health, and building the immune system, when I heard that wasn’t an acceptable business to open, that’s when I decided that that was enough,” Schell said.

Schell reached out to his students and told them of his plans, then reopened his business on Monday.

As each student walked into his facility Tuesday afternoon, Schell greeted them and had them sign a liability form, with questions asking whether they had been sick recently, or whether they had come in contact someone who had COVID-19. Then they began class with what seemed to be little worry about the disease. The group seemed excited for some sense of normalcy.

“I understand completely having the choice to choose whether you want to accept that risk or not accept that risk,” Schell said. “That’s why we live here in this country, right? So we have the freedom to choose what we decide is safe for ourselves, what is not safe.”

Schell said Thursday that he was contacted by the local police department Wednesday night because someone filed a complaint that his business had opened.

He has since been forced to close. But Schell said he plans to appeal with Cooper’s office and the state’s department of revenue to have his business be considered an essential service.

Coronavirus risk factors

Since the pandemic began, North Carolina has continued to see an increase in the number of lab-confirmed cases.

On Friday, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services reported 26,488 lab-confirmed cases, an increase of 1,076 from Thursday. Increasing case counts is one of the primary reasons why state officials say they decided to take a moderate approach to reopening.

The day after Cooper’s Phase Two announcement, N.C. DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen explained why fitness facilities should not open yet.

Gyms have two risk factors, Cohen said at a news conference on May 21. In gyms, she said, people are breathing more heavily and intensely. That can increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 because it is spread through airborne droplets.

“It’s not an issue related to sweat,” Cohen said Thursday. “It is really more about the heavier breathing that you do naturally when you are doing any of the athletics in a gym setting.”

She also said people working out are less likely to wear face coverings.

“It’s not to say we can never move there and it’s too risky ever,” Cohen said. “I think this is just about taking a measured approach so that we are going to do some of these other activities.”

The state has not specified whether gyms could open in Phase Three or later. Phase Three is expected to begin June 26 at the earliest, only if the state reaches certain benchmarks for reopening.

But some gym owners like Velissariou at Bull & Bear Gym say they can’t wait. He said he wants to be able to provide for his family. As for the critics who say it’s not healthy for him to reopen, he disagrees.

“You’re just as likely to get in an accident on the way to the gym driving your car,” he said. “The odds are very low you can get anything from the gym. So if you’re scared, don’t come. If you feel uneasy about it, I get it. Everyone’s situation is different.”

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