Crossfit Impervious owner Terri Davis, second from left, with gym member Jen Gatz, and members of Crossfit Impervious' staff, Joe Cocanower Stephanie Sinopoli and Junho Se, today at the Riverhead gym. Photo: Denise Civiletti

As customers return to salons, restaurants and bars, frustrated gym and fitness center owners are demanding equal treatment. A coalition of gym owners representing 2,000 facilities across New York filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to remove gyms from the businesses cleared to reopen in Phase Four took gym owners by surprise and left them in the dark about when — or even whether — they’ll be able to reopen.

Cuomo announced on June 24 that gyms, movie theaters and malls were no longer part of Phase Four reopening, which went into effect in five upstate regions June 26 and on Long Island yesterday.

The governor said the state was studying “new information on how the virus spreads.”

“We’ll have a decision as soon as we process all the information,” he said.

And that’s all the information gym owners, who were eagerly looking forward to getting back to business, have gotten.

Utterly frustrated by the lack of information coming from the state — and in dire financial straits from having their businesses shuttered since March — gym owners decided to fight back.

The shuttered Maximus Fitness on East Main Street in Riverhead July 8. The owners could not be reached for comment for this story. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The gym owners set up a Facebook group on the day Cuomo announced gyms would not reopen in Phase Four and started a GoFundMe page to raise money for legal expenses. The “Fitness Industry vs. NY Class-action Lawsuit” now has more than 4,000 members and the fundraising effort has gotten contributions of more than $60,000 in nine days.

“The right to be treated equally is just as important as any other right that’s protected by the Constitution,” the gym owners’ lawyer, James Mermigis, said in an interview on Fox Business. “Gyms are being treated differently than than tattoo parlors, Walmart, Target, tanning salons,” he said.

“Either open up the gyms or pay us.”

Gym owner Charlie Cassara, an organizer of and a lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, said the lawsuit had “almost a couple of thousand plaintiffs.”

“The governor said when it comes time to reopen, you’re going to have to demonstrate you can safely reopen,” Cassara said. “We’re not given that opportunity.”

The prolonged closure has put a large portion of the industry on the very brink of extinction, he said.

“I’ve spoke to hundreds of gym owners. They can’t even afford to put food on the table,” Cassara said.

Terri Davis, owner of Crossfit Impervious in Riverhead, said gyms are going bankrupt. She estimated half of them will not survive the shutdown.

“I will open my doors,” Davis said, “but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep them open.”

Davis said she was in a restaurant the other day and there were 60 people inside. “I can’t even have two,” she said.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

Davis joined the class-action lawsuit.

So did Kristen Falek and Randy Nieves, co-owners of North Fork Grappling in Cutchogue.

First-time business owners, the Jamesport couple decided in January to open their very own gym — the only jiu-jitsu academy on the East End outside of Southampton.

Kristen Falek and Randy Nieves, owners of North Fork Grappling. Courtesy photo.

By the time March arrived, they had attracted two dozen members and just had started turning a profit. Then the pandemic hit and the shut-down order came.

They have since resorted dipping into their personal savings, which was set aside to save for their first home, in order to pay the rent on gym space for their budding business.

“It’s been difficult,” said Falek, who is 26. “We had just started being able to pay our bills. We had just gotten to that point, and then this hit.”

Davis, who has a full-time job with the town, said her accountant calls her gym business “a very expensive hobby.”

Cassara echoed that sentiment. “It’s a small industry that works on small margins. No one gets into the fitness to make money,” he said.

Davis, like Falek and Nieves, has been using personal funds to pay her business rent, to maintain the 4,200-square-foot space she rents in Riverhead.

Expecting to be able to reopen in Phase Four, she installed signage, had the gym cleaned “top to bottom and inside out.” She taped off spaces on the floor and announced she wouldn’t be taking any new members.

Before Cuomo announced gyms would be excluded from the Phase Four reopening, Falek and Nieves rented a larger space in North Fork Grappling’s existing location in Cutchogue, more than doubling the size of their gym so that when their members return, they can safely distance when they’re not on the mat.

Falek described the state’s decision to continue keeping gyms closed as “devastating.”

“Up until now, we’ve been able to keep our heads above water,” she said. “But I don’t know how much more we’re going to be able to handle.”

Shortly after the gym was closed in March, Falek also lost her second job as a server at a local restaurant due to the pandemic lockdown. They have been relying on Nieves’ second job at Riverhead Building Supply to meet basic expenses, but Falek says the couple is still going into debt trying to keep up with rent and other business expenses.

She expressed frustration that gyms have been singled out when most of Long Island’s businesses have been permitted to reopen their doors in Phase Four.

“There are people going to restaurants, people crammed into bars. There are people crowding the aisles at Target and Walmart because they want to look at pillows. But they can’t do something good for themselves and work out somewhere that helps their physical and mental health.”

Fitness studios often foster a strong sense of community through a regular schedule of classes, where members are encouraged to support and learn from one another.

“There are people who struggle with mental health that look to jiu-jitsu to supplement therapy,” Falek said. “It sucks hearing from our students that they’re struggling and we can’t actively do something for them.”

Jen Gatz, a Crossfit Impervious member for two-and-a-half years, agreed.

“What most people don’t realize, for very small gyms like this —
I don’t call it a place. It’s a people — a community of people,” she said.

Gatz, 48, of Riverhead, a triathlete, marathon runner and competitive rower, said she decided to try Crossfit to get stronger.

“I was immediately hooked,” Gatz said.

“Most of us have a specific class we attend,” she said. “We’re with the same people every single day.” The bond they form is strong.

Gatz is a high school teacher with a PhD in science education.

“If you look at other states, there’s no evidence the gyms are causing a spike in COVID cases,” Gatz said. “The spikes are coming from bars and young people in other states. I feel very bad for these small business owners. I hope they can stay afloat.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.