Despite new, harsher state-ordered coronavirus restrictions, some Pennsylvania gyms have deemed their business too important to let a little pandemic stand in the way.
The man leading the charge: a big-time GOP donor in Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, whose organization, People 4 Trump, recently used its website to help rally attendees on buses for an "election integrity" march and fast in Washington, D.C. Some far-right protesters in Washington that day ripped down Black Lives Matter signs and vandalized Black churches.
While the anti-lockdown businesses in Pennsylvania have found some community support, conversations with locals and experts paint a picture of a power-tripping MAGA diehard whose actions risked pushing the hospital system to the brink.
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"Medical people have been working since March trying to battle this virus, and [they] act like all the lives lost don't matter, only the almighty dollar does," Elizabeth Reilly, a 43-year-old licensed practical nurse in the Philadelphia area, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. "I get [that] people are having financial hardships [and] empathize, but our government should be helping small businesses and people laid off more, so people can survive."
After himself testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, and in response to rising case numbers in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf issued several tighter coronavirus restrictions that, among other things, closed indoor dining and gyms, in addition to suspending youth sports and limiting gatherings.
But in a statement on its Facebook page last week, Newtown Athletic Club (aka "knack")-a gym owned by Jim Worthington, who was recently reappointed to President Trump's Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition-said it would remain open anyway. Worthington also owns Horsham Athletic Club, which will remain open as well.
Worthington and the Newtown gym-a $300-a-month, luxury 250,000-square-foot fitness complex on 25 acres of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania-were profiled by Philadelphia Magazine in 2019. The publication called it "an unlikely nexus of power, politics, money, sex, and intrigue, a mini-city where thousands of people-including the area's wealthiest, prettiest and fittest-go to work out and show off."
The story also described Worthington as "brash" and "bullish," with a thick Philly accent and a son who once served prison time for biting someone's ear off. And it detailed his passionate efforts to both find a cure for ALS and re-elect President Trump, for whom he fundraised, and called his gym a $19 million-a-year business with 500 employees and 12,000 members.
"We believe in the importance of fitness as essential in the fight against COVID-19 and are confident in our ability to operate successfully following all COVID-19 protocols for safety," said the statement announcing the gym would defy state orders. "We believe that we are doing more service to our community if we remain available for them to continue their exercise and healthy lifestyle regimes."
"We thank our members and the community for their ongoing support and respect the right of every citizen of the commonwealth to make the best decisions for themselves and their families," it continued.
As of Wednesday, federal data showed St. Mary Medical Center, in Bucks County, at 100 percent capacity, with 40 percent of all beds filled with COVID-19 patients, according to Patch.com. Last month, about 800 nurses at the hospital went on strike over what they called dangerously low staffing levels during the pandemic.
And in general, 22 percent of hospital beds in the entire county were occupied by a COVID-19 patient as of Wednesday.
Local officials were flabbergasted at the insurrection.
"I am unclear why they think they do not have to comply when we are in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in over 1,000 years, where thousands are dying every day," Bucks County Commissioners Chairperson Diane Ellis-Marseglia told The Daily Beast. "We expect people to follow speed limits, have homeowners insurance, and abide by emergency declarations; this really is not an option."
On the question of enforcement, Ellis-Marseglia said county commissioners wrote to the governor for guidance and received an answer from Wolf's office. The officials were told, according to a copy of the memo forwarded to The Daily Beast on Thursday, that it would be left up to local and state agencies to enforce the order.
"While the decision whether to issue a warning or a citation is made on a case-by-case basis and determined by the unique circumstances of each encounter, the governor has ordered that all law enforcement and state agencies step [up] enforcement efforts, issuing citations and fines, and possibly regulatory actions for repeat offenders," said the memo forwarded by Ellis-Marseglia.
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Observers on Twitter were incensed, calling it "greedy" and "disgusting" that Worthington has acted as if he is "above the law."
"fuck jim worthington and the nac," tweeted one. "dude would rather people die than lose three weeks of profits."
Worthington and his Newtown gym are certainly not the only Pennsylvanians declaring their unwillingness to follow Wolf's new mandates. In response to the facility's Facebook post, one commenter wrote, "Well done!! Will be there everyday like normal." Another added, "Everyone has the choice to come in to workout or not. I am happy to have the choice! Thank you!"
In addition to a handful of restaurants in the state who've publicly condemned Wolf's regulations and announced their plans to violate the mandate, another Bucks County gym, Transcend Fitness, said on Facebook that it, too, planned to defy the order because, according to its statement, "fitness is a part of the solution to overcome COVID."
"We will continue to implement our excessive sanitary standards to keep our club the cleanest, safest space for our members," said the gym, joining a national trend of gyms as hotbeds for coronavirus skepticism.
While the insurgent gyms did not respond to requests for comments from The Daily Beast on Wednesday, and though the website for the Newtown's cites the importance of mask-wearing and other precautions at the facility, experts say remaining open at all-especially when violating local orders-is irresponsible.
"Gyms have an elevated risk profile because they are indoors and patrons are breathing heavily," said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. "Masks and distancing certainly reduce the risk considerably, but each business can't decide for itself whether it will open and under what circumstances."
"If the state orders business closures that include gyms, then these establishments have a legal and ethical duty to comply," added Gostin. "We need public health rules with which everyone complies."
A local official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Worthington's history as someone who both organized Trump rallies and acted as a Pennsylvania Republican Delegate for Trump in 2016 was inextricably linked to his decisions on COVID-19.
"Bucks County has had relatively low COVID counts up until recently," said the official. "One of the biggest things we can do to prevent the spread of the disease is to stay away from other people and indoor gatherings, and maintaining a gym really flies in the face of that. I would hope that the members of those gyms are smarter than the owners."
Or, as Brooks Gump, the Falk Family Endowed Professor of Public Health at Syracuse University, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday: "This sort of behavior-namely, disregarding advice and directives-by an organization or elected leader undermines all those in the community that are doing their best to abide by the rules."
And that doesn't bode well for trusting these gyms to enforce other measures, like mask-wearing, said Gump.
"Clearly the organization does not take precautions seriously," he added.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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