Atilis Gym, in the small South Jersey borough of Bellmawr, boasts of its “strongman training.” On Monday morning, live on Fox and Friends, the gym’s co-owners played strongmen standing up to Governor Phil Murphy, who left gyms and exercise facilities out of the list of businesses that could begin opening today, as the state with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases (behind New York) begins to come out of its lockdown. Atilis nonetheless opened at 8 am for television cameras, a crowd of 200 (mostly Trump supporters), and a Fox News cheerleader, anchor Pete Hegseth.
“We’re sick and tired of having our rights trampled on,” co-owner Ian Smith told Hegseth through his American flag mask. His partner, Frank Trumbetti, also wore a flag mask, but in dire shades of black and grey. Hegseth, a hard-right former Army National Guard officer, sported a tight blue T-shirt that showed off his biceps and his “We the People” tattoo. Although he claimed (without evidence) that the owners are “strong supporters of law enforcement,” Hegseth seemed to go out of his way to egg on a clash with police, pointing to the patrol cars blocking the gym’s parking lot entrances, as well as a drone overhead, and warning of a “looming confrontation” and potential “showdown.” At one point he claimed, “There’s a SWAT unit just up the road from here, potentially waiting for the gym to be full,” adding, “We don’t have that confirmed.” As far as I know, it never was confirmed.
Smith promised to face whatever consequences, and reopen tomorrow if he got shut down. Hegseth called the gym owners’ defiance, and the protesters’ support, “a testament to America and civil disobedience.”
Is it, though?
Though Hegseth joined the crowd mask-free, he kept at least six feet of distance from everyone, and failed to mention that normally he broadcasts from a cozy home studio, as do Fox’s other highly paid anchors. (Safety for me, but not for thee!) After watching for more than four hours, I concluded the New Jersey clash was just another dumb culture-war showdown, with Fox, normally an advocate of law and order, encouraging people to defy the law. It was cartoonish and predictable, but it’s a shame, because the issues raised as the country begins to loosen restrictions are serious, and not easily resolved.
The tension is (appropriately) evident in the pages of The Nation. Last Thursday, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonzalves warned that the nation’s haphazard, patchwork approach of ignoring science and ending lockdowns, largely led by red states, means “we will not get our epidemic under control in the US.” The next day, media critic Michael Massing argued in these pages that “liberal and conservative elites aren’t grappling with the pandemic’s toll on working-class people—and the impossible choices they’re forced to make.” They’re both right (and Gonzalves also noted that both the illness and the lockdowns are hitting low-income black and brown communities hardest).
Of course, “opening” vs. “staying closed” is a false dichotomy. So is any argument that pits public health against economic recovery. Virtually everyone (except wealthy introverts, perhaps) wants to get back to familiar routines, and liberals in particular are being unfairly caricatured as favoring eternal lockdown. We don’t.
In fact, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy strikes me as thoughtful in his approach to reopening. He reopened nonessential construction and retail (for curbside pickup) Monday; beaches, nail salons, and some restaurants will open next week.
The Atilis owners don’t see it that way. Murphy’s executive order, Trumbetti argued, “states that gyms have to be closed to the public, meaning every member of the country or the community. And we don’t have that. We have members. Once you buy a membership, you separate yourself from the public and you are your own thing.” The fact that once you leave the gym you rejoin the public, and if you get sick, you’re a drain on public health systems, did not trouble Trumbetti’s reasoning.
He made a more interesting point later in the interview with Hegseth: “The simple solution to this would be to close big box [stores], because big box doesn’t care about us, we don’t care about big box, they just send the money out of the community. You leave the little box open, and we take care of one another.” This is a lockdown tension everywhere, as stores like Walmart and Target are allowed to reopen in many places (as in New Jersey, with curbside pickup only) while some smaller businesses, whether because of resource constraints or lockdown rules, cannot. Of course, the local Walmart and Target employ more people than Atilis Gym, and the urgency of gym-going seems hard to argue when people are allowed outdoors for exercise.
I can’t attest to the politics of the two gym owners, but the rhetoric of their Facebook page, where they announced their reopening protest, decried “government over-reach” and claimed that authorities had exaggerated the threat of Covid-19, both in terms of coming fatalities as well as the threat to medical facilities. They echoed Fox News rhetoric, as did the flag-waving, Trump-admiring crowd, which carried signs calling Murphy a “dictator” and advising, “Stay poor, vote Democrat.” I can’t even be sure the protesters were Bellmawr residents; the borough of approximately 12,000 people is led by Democrats, from its mayor to all six city council members, and a majority of its registered voters identify as Democrats.
But even in heavily Democratic New York City, where there are no right-wing protests I’m aware of, there are signs that the liberal populace is chafing at the lockdown, especially as the weather gets better. The city is starting to restrict access to parks where people have been ignoring social distancing rules. But on a balmy Saturday night on the Upper East Side, mainly young and white bar-goers sipped cocktails on the street, huddling together without masks, turning parts of Second and Third avenues into Bourbon Street. In Harlem some people tried the same thing the same night, but I watched the police quickly break up the crowds. Reportedly, they gave at least one bar owner a summons for violating the rules of the lockdown (establishments can sell alcohol, but only with some kind of food, and patrons have to take it away).
The enforcement of social distancing here has been widely inequitable: Basically, white people get to flout the rules, while black and brown residents who do the same have been beaten, cited, and arrested. But across demographics, we yearn for an end to the lockdown: at least the resumption of outdoor dining and small group gatherings with social distancing precautions; farther in the future, a return to work and school, but safely.
To be fair, the owners of Atilis Gym implemented some measures to mitigate risk: taking members’ temperatures (although reportedly members could enter with a fever of 100.4), requiring them to fill out a health questionnaire, wear masks, and maintain social distancing inside, with no showers or group classes. They estimate that will keep them at 20 percent of normal capacity. How long that would sustain any business, even once it’s open legally, is a big question. But Smith told Fox it’s about “the Constitution,” not profits.
As the morning wore on, there was no clash with police, although Hegseth kept predicting one. “The state police are staged very nearby,” he breathlessly told anchor Ed Henry, who kind of rushed him off the screen, with a flattering “Thanks, Pete, right in the middle of this ongoing battle!” Fox had other big news: mainly President Obama’s mild criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic in commencement speeches over the weekend. Karl Rove, the former GOP political maven made irrelevant by Obama’s 2012 reelection, called his statements “a political drive-by shooting.” (Hegseth, for his part, dismissed Obama as “not that articulate” on Sunday, while Trump called him “grossly incompetent.”) So subtle, guys.
Oh, and they also endlessly hyped “Obamagate,” the ludicrous charge that the former president and his vice president, Joe Biden, the almost-certain Democratic nominee, illegally “unmasked” former national security adviser Michael Flynn before Trump took office, leading to his being charged and convicted after confessing to lying to the FBI about conversations with a Russian official. (Here’s a thorough debunking.) The only scandal is that Attorney General William Barr reversed others in the Justice Department and dropped the charges.
It’s been a long time since I waded into the swamp of Fox News nontroversies and the tireless confection of “alternative facts” that poison the minds of the network’s viewers. Fox has been particularly deadly during this pandemic, with most of its prime-time hosts downplaying the danger and then lying about downplaying it, hyping Trump’s crackpot hydroxychloroquine cure (testing now shows it tends to make Covid sufferers fare worse). I’m glad I visited Fox World, but I didn’t want to stay.
I didn’t have to. Around 10:30 am, local police officers approached the gym. “We are and only were here for everybody’s safety today,” one officer told the owners and the crowd. “We planned for the worst and hoped for the best, and it seems like that’s what we have out here today. Formally, you are all in violation of the executive order. On that note, have a good day. Everybody be safe.” Then he walked away, and the crowd cheered.
Fox was denied its dramatic confrontation, but Hegseth declared victory anyway, tweeting:
Police just showed up to @TheAtilisGym. Entire exchange was respectful. The officer notified the gym they were “violating the Governor’s order.” Then said, “have a nice day” and walked away. The crowd roared.
—Pete Hegseth (@PeteHegseth) May 18, 2020
It’s unclear whether the gym will be allowed to stay open permanently and, if so, whether that will inspire other business owners to violate the shutdown. But it was good to see Fox denied the confrontation it so wanted to have live, on its air.