BELLMAWR, N.J.- There is no question that police officers have been caught squarely in the middle during this unprecedented national lockdown.
They are put in the position of trying to enforce what some consider to be unconstitutional orders, considering that police are sworn to uphold the constitution when they are appointed as officers.
Police officers in New Jersey on Monday walked the fine line between following orders and upholding the constitution.
The New York Post reported that on Monday morning, gym owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti reopened their facility in defiance of stay-at-home regulations mandated by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Belmawr police responded to the facility, which had a large crowd of supporters out front, and one could have reasonably assumed that this was not going to turn out well.
The officers issued a summons to the Atilis Gym owners, and while the summons did not mention a penalty, the offense could potentially land them in jail for six months, and a fine of up to $1,000. Currently across the country, known felons are being released from jail to protect them from coronavirus, so the dichotomy is interesting.
The summons was ordered by Camden County, who forwarded it to the police department, according to a man who answered the phone at the gym.
“We’re assuming that came down from the governor,” he said. “It’s my assumption.”
Police asked the gym-goers and supporters outside to disperse, which they did.
“I think it was important we show some faith because this was never a battle with law enforcement,” the man said. “We complied with that; we had the crowd disperse.”
He added that the gym will reopen again on Tuesday.
The crowd started to gather Monday morning around 5am in support of the owner’s defiance of what many believe to be draconian measures implemented by Murphy.
Most of the supporters did not wear masks, and many wore hats and shirts in support of President Trump, while others held signs demanding an end to the lockdown restrictions.
Among the signs were some which read, “Tyranny is spreading faster than COVID-19.” Many chanted, saying things such as “Let us get back to work” in unison.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a couple of hours before the summons was served, at around 11 a.m., an officer informed the gym’s owners they were operating in violation of the executive order, but then left without taking any further actions, leading to cheers from the crowd and chants of “U.S.A, U.S.A!!”
“Formally, you’re all in violation of the executive order,” said an officer, who was identified as a Capt. Parker by Bellmawr police, as he addressed the crowd of supporters. “On that note, have a good day and stay safe.”
At that time, the officers did not ask the crowed to disperse despite the violation of the executive order which bans gatherings of more than 10 people. The police department had been monitoring the well-behaved demonstration all morning.
As the police left, the crowd cheered and yelled, “We won!” Trumbetti and Smith gave each other a high-five and pumped fists in the air.
— Atilis Gym Bellmawr (@TheAtilisGym) May 18, 2020
It was around two hours later when the Bellmawr police officer came back to the gym and served the owners with the summons.
Trumbetti said he was not surprised by receiving the summons.
“I expected this. I actually expected more than this,” he said. “We firmly believe that everything we are doing is constitutional. It’s our right, and we have not broken any laws.”
“I didn’t open up today to close tomorrow,” he added.
UPDATE: Local police returned to the gym in the afternoon and handed citations to BOTH of Atilis Gym’s owners for “Disorderly Conduct” statute. “Violation of Executive Order” is handwritten over ‘Description of Offense’. Both now have scheduled June court date @fox29philly pic.twitter.com/s78H19uPo0
— Steve Keeley (@KeeleyFox29) May 18, 2020
The owners of the gym have been making numerous media appearances to plead their case, including Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News. Smith has been wondering why big corporations have seemed to be prioritized over small businesses.
“Frank and I have been scared this entire time. I’m still scared. We don’t know if we’re out of the woods yet,” Smith said.
Shortly after the gym owners received the summons, the attorney for the gym sent a letter to Murphy, which said in part:
“My clients have a fundamental property interest in conducting business activities that are protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Just In: Letter from lawyer of NOW OPEN Atilis Gym in Bellmawr to @GovMurphy @njsp commander @CamdenCoPros “My clients have a fundamental property interest in conducting business activities that are protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” @FOX29philly pic.twitter.com/54O0EjJ62v
— Steve Keeley (@KeeleyFox29) May 18, 2020
At his daily press briefing, Murphy was defiant.
“If you show up at that gym again tomorrow, there’s going to be a different reality than showing today,” he said.
“These aren’t just words. We’ve got to enforce this. But I also don’t want to start World War III.”
“As a result of the direct violation of the terms and conditions set forth [by the executive order], Mr. Trumbetti and Mr. Smith were both charged on a summons with a disorderly person’s offense by the Bellmawr Police Department who had a presence on scene in order to protect the public’s safety and welfare,” the Bellmawr Police Department said in a statement.
The Inquirer said they would not answer further questions.
The mayor of Bellmawr declined to comment on specifics, although he did acknowledge the protesters’ right to assemble.
“With respect to the opening of Atilis Gym, from the start, this matter has been handled exclusively and appropriately by law enforcement, including our local police department.
I am proud of the manner in which the Bellmawr Police Department conducted themselves this morning as well as the respect shown toward our Police Officers by the General Public,” said Mayor Chuck Saulter in an emailed statement.
State officials also weighed in on the controversy.
“New Jersey’s law enforcement officers are on the front lines of this pandemic—not just protecting and serving all residents, but also balancing public health and public safety as they enforce the Governor’s executive orders,” Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in an emailed statement.
“Those individuals who violate the Governor’s orders make it harder for our officers to do their jobs and they put our officers at risk. I commend law enforcement’s bravery and diligence today and every day,” he finished.
In trying to comply with much of Murphy’s orders, the gym operated at only 20% capacity, allowing only 44 members inside at a time.
Members were subject to temperature checks at the entrance and were asked to fill out a medical questionnaire and sign a waiver. The gym only allowed members in and put a hold on new sign-ups, the owners said.
Equipment inside was spread out to maintain social distancing, and members were required to wear masks except in the middle of sets. They also had to spray down equipment before and after use, after being issued their own individual spray bottle.
Michael Sulit is the owner of Fight Fit Fight Strong, which conducts kickboxing classes at the gym. He said that working out is a lifestyle issue.
“The best way to survive COVID-19 is to be stronger,” he said. “Why can Home Depot and liquor stores be open, but we can’t work out?
The Inquirer also noted that a gym in Pennsylvania had opened in defiance of that governor’s orders as well, although it didn’t receive the publicity that Atilis did.
As did governors in other states, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf threatened to unleash state agencies on businesses that opened prior to him blessing them to do so. Unlike other governors, Wolf did not address police enforcement.
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