‘Frustrated’ gym owners join class-action lawsuit in effort to reopen as New York continues into Phase 4

Gym owners, feeling the financial crunch of their businesses being shut down for four months, are not in good shape.

That’s the message they want to convey to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who along with the state attorney general and New York State, was named in a $500 million class-action lawsuit filed by the Mermigis Law Group in the state Supreme Court last Thursday. The lawsuit claims gyms and fitness centers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and have had to lay off at least 70,000 employees throughout the state as a result of the continued shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plaintiff claims Mr. Cuomo’s executive shutdown order and the continued closure of gyms is discriminatory, unconstitutional and does not provide due process. Gyms have suffered “irreparable harm” since their March 16 closure, said the plaintiff.

“The unequal, random, arbitrary and unfair treatment has continued in the reopening guidance,” the lawsuit states. “Tattoo parlors, tanning salons, health spas and dentists are allowed to open their doors, but gyms remain locked down.”

Thousand Island Fitness Center in Jefferson County is the primary plaintiff. Attorney James Mermigis, representing the plaintiff, said he expected between 2,500 and 4,000 gyms to be involved in the lawsuit.

“The rationale is simple,” Mr. Mermigis said. “These are small business owners that have been shut down since March 16th. They’re now five months in. Most of my clients are on the brink of losing everything. Who’s going to compensate them?”

Gyms were expected to reopen with the arrival of Phase 4 last Wednesday, but were then excluded over the state’s concerns about air filtering systems spreading the coronavirus.

“Gyms, theaters, malls, we are still looking at the science and the data,” Mr. Cuomo said in a June 26 conference call. “There has been information that those situations have created issues in other states. If we have that information, we don’t want to then go ahead until we know what we’re doing, right? This is a road that no one has traveled on before. Logic suggests, if you see a problem in other states, then you explore it before you move forward in your state, and that’s what we’re doing with gyms, theaters and malls.”

Jason Conwall, the governor’s deputy communications director, said in a statement to the News-Review Tuesday: “The actions taken by the Governor with respect to gyms and fitness centers are wholly consistent with the powers granted to the Executive by the Legislature. The measures the Governor has taken were intended to — and did — curb the rise of infection across the State. They also allowed us to avoid subsequent spikes of infection. Reports show that infections are spiking in 39 states, and that officials in those states have been forced to reclose businesses and other parts of the economy that were opened too early. Every public opinion survey has shown an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support our re-opening approach. We understand that some people aren’t happy — but better unhappy than sick or worse. We fully intend to defend the actions taken in these matters.”

Mr. Mermigis painted a bleak picture for gym operators struggling to pay bills without revenue coming in. “If some of my clients do not open within a week or two, they will be handing in their keys to their landlords for good and shutting down their businesses and their life dreams, their life ambitions all down the drain,” he said.

One could sense the exasperation in the voice of Terri Davis, owner of Crossfit Impervious in Riverhead and Crossfit Warrior Legion in Hampton Bays.

“Financially, it just affected my business, it affected my retirement,” she said. “It has affected everything. You know, I’m using my personal funds to just try to stay afloat and I don’t really know how much longer I’m going to be able to do that. It’s so frustrating and upsetting.”

North Fork Grappling in Cutchogue, which offers mixed martial arts classes, was in operation for only two and a half months before the closure order came down. Owners Kristen Falek and Randy Nieves have had to dip into their savings.

“I can think of a handful of gyms that have closed, people that we know locally throughout the island,” said Mr. Nieves.

And what about their place?

“For us, martial arts is more than just a business,” he said. “It’s really something we wanted to bring to our community, so we think we’ll make it out of this … We want to have our business again. We all have this dream.”