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Facing massive fines and jail, N.J. gym owner says nothing will make him close his doors

The owners of Atilis Gym have been arrested and threatened with hefty fines, but say they will fight to keep their doors open no matter what.
New Jersey Gym Owner Opens His Gym Despite Recent Violations Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Atilis Gym co-owners Ian Smith, left, and Frank Trumbetti welcome a customer to their gym in Bellmawr, N.J., on May 20, 2020, after the business reopened, defying a state order.Mark Makela / Getty Images

A New Jersey gym owner who faces the possibility of $15,000 per day fines for refusing to close his gym, despite state ordinances during the coronavirus pandemic, said Friday that nothing will stop him from opening his doors.

Atilis Gym in Bellmawr opened in May, defying Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order to remain closed during the pandemic, and sparking a legal battle.

The owners, Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti, have received and ignored several citations and were arrested last month and charged with contempt, obstruction and violating the Disaster Control Act.

They reopened the gym less than a week later.

On Tuesday, the Bellmawr Borough Council voted 5-to-1 to rescind Atilis' business license. And on Friday, Smith and Trumbetti were due to attend a court hearing by phone in which a judge would allow or disallow the state to fine the gym more than $15,000 for every day they remain open.

"We’re not going to back down — this is not about opening up a gym," Trumbetti told NBC News hours before the hearing. "This is about our constitutional rights, and he has violated them," Trumbetti said, referring to Murphy.

Trumbetti said the proposed fines were set because a GoFundMe set up by supporters had raised more than $250,000, and the state has decided the owners can afford such steep fees. Trumbetti said the funds are needed for lawyer fees.

When he and Smith were arrested, Trumbetti said they were detained for three hours, but they have been threatened with arrest again on charges of being in contempt of court. Murphy "wants to put me in jail for trying to be healthy and help people be healthy," Trumbetti said. "The only way he can win is to kill me. This is my job."

Trumbetti said the gym has implemented a slew of precautions to protect members while they are working out.

Guests are first greeted with an anti-microbial sanitizer, COVID-19 questionnaire and temperature check. Those with a temperature over 100.4 prompt an alarm, and are sent home. Everyone is equipped with their own bottle of sanitizer to clean machines, which Trumbetti said is being used so often it's becoming "redundant."

The gym is disinfected in the morning and at night using several methods, and the air conditioning unit is new, Trumbetti said. The gym also has 25-foot ceilings and a big fan, he added. Showers and water fountains are not currently available, and people are asked to social distance but the gym does not require them to wear masks while working out.

"The governor doesn't want to listen to us," Trumbetti said. "He doesn’t care about our protocol. He’s just on a power trip."

In his most recent guidance regarding gyms, Murphy said fitness centers could offer individual indoor instruction, like a one-on-one session with a personal trainer.

New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states early on in the pandemic before it appeared to have successfully flattened the coronavirus curve. But in late July and early August, the state saw the number of new cases spike by 175 percent.

Murphy responded by tightening restrictions on the number of people who can gather at indoor venues or parties from 100 to 25.

The governor said at the time that the state was “standing in a very dangerous place” and he placed the blame squarely on the “knuckleheads” who fail to follow the rules.

Trumbetti doesn't deny the danger of the virus. He said his mother died of it in May. But he believes he's created a safe environment at his gym, where he said no one to his knowledge has tested positive after more than 20,000 check-ins since May.

"They made the mistake of thinking we’re two dumb gym owners. We’re way more than that," Trumbetti said. "We know how to fight with words and logic, not just fists and muscles."

Murphy's office directed requests for comment to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. The attorney general's office responded by sending a copy of the state motion to compel Atilis Gym to comply with the most recent shutdown order levied on July 24.

“Defendant Atilis Gym’s brazen conduct is abhorrent to an organized judicial system, jeopardizes the public health and the safety of New Jersians, and must not be tolerated,” the motion said. “Severe monetary sanctions are necessary to coerce compliance.”

The state is asking for fines against the gym of more than $15,000 because the fundraising efforts for the gym had raised so much money, the state explained.

The money raised for the gym through GoFundMe was for “the express purpose of paying fines, penalties, and court costs related to its non-compliance with closure orders,” the motion said. “Because the daily monetary sanction amount must deplete this stockpile in order to disincentivize Atilis Gym from remaining open, the daily monetary sanction amount cannot be lower than $15,229.80 per day — calculated to deplete the current stockpile within 10 days.”