‘We will not be backing down’

The owners of a New Jersey gym were arrested Monday after they repeatedly defied Gov. Phil Murphy’s coronavirus restrictions on businesses, becoming a rallying point for advocates of small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

The owners of Bellmawr New Jersey’s Atilis Gym, Ian Smith, 33, and Frank Trumbetti, 51, were arrested at around 5:30 a.m. ET Monday morning after they refused to leave the gym and police boarded up their business, their attorney, James Mermigis, said in an interview with CNBC.

Smith and Trumbetti were both charged with fourth-degree contempt, obstruction and violation of a disaster-control act, according to a statement from the office of Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill S. Mayer.

The arrest marks an escalation of the clash between the state of New Jersey and the two gym owners, who have consistently tested the bounds and, at times, outright defied the governor’s order for many nonessential businesses to close in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Murphy ordered gyms and other businesses to close on March 21 as the virus spread rapidly through the state, especially the Northern region near New York City. He has since allowed many businesses to resume operations with some restrictions, including outdoor workout classes and indoor one-on-one coaching at gyms. However, standard gym operations remain banned with no announced return date.

“After Atilis Gym refused to comply with multiple criminal citations and Superior Court orders, including a contempt of court order issued Friday, today law enforcement entered the premises to ensure closure of the gym and to abate the public health risks,” a spokesperson for New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement. “As the Attorney General previously said, the state wishes it had not come to this, but the gym refused to comply even with a contempt order.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 179,812 people in New Jersey and killed at least 15,800 people, according to the state’s department of health.

Throughout the public health crisis, the owners of Atilis Gym have garnered national attention with their defiance of the restrictions, appearing on talk shows, including “Fox and Friends” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“They have such a big following now, nationally, so a lot of people come from within the state from within the country just to hang out and say that they were there,” Mermigis, the attorney, said in an interview. “A lot of people have followed these guys since they were on Tucker Carlson back in mid-May.”

Smith and Trumbetti first reopened their gym on May 18, Mermigis said, in defiance of the governor’s order and surrounded by American flag-toting supporters who chanted “U.S.A.,” according to a video posted on Twitter at the time.

A judge previously ruled that the owners could reopen part of the gym, which also hosts a retail operation that sells vitamins, protein powders and other products, Mermigis said. He added that while the retail segment of the store was deemed allowed to reopen, they remained forbidden from resuming indoor workout operations. From June 16 until July 4, the owners moved equipment outdoors and hosted outdoor workout classes, Mermigis said.

After the gym moved its workout sessions back indoors, a judge last week ruled that Smith and Trumbetti were in contempt of court, paving the way for stronger state action. Mermigis maintains that the governor’s order and the way it’s been enforced is “unconstitutional” and that the judge’s case against the two owners was “weak.” He added that they are appealing the ruling. 

In a video posted to the gym’s Facebook page, one of the owners, Smith, said that he and Trumbetti were sleeping inside the gym to prevent police from shutting down the business.

“Frank and I stayed the night here last night and we are prepared to stay inside the building no matter what,” Smith said in the video. “We will not be backing down under any circumstances.”

In a video posted earlier Monday to the gym’s Facebook page, at least one police vehicle is seen in front of the gym and officers are shown taking Smith into custody.

“Welcome to America 2020, where feeding your family and standing up for your Constitutional rights is illegal,” the post reads, adding that Murphy is “flexing his little tyrant muscles finally.”

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