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Victory Fitness reopens Wilson, Rocky Mount gyms despite Cooper's executive order

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After a nearly two-month closure, Victory Fitness owners Neil and Ann Strother eagerly awaited Gov. Roy Cooper’s Wednesday business reopening announcement. But their mood changed when state health statistics led officials to drop gyms and bars from the list of facilities allowed to resume operations. 

“It was devastating. It was absolutely devastating and heartbreaking,” Neil Strother said. “This is the way we make a living. If we don’t work, we can’t survive.”

Their anticipation, heartbreak and defiance on Wednesday showed through three posts on the business’ Facebook page. The posts spurred hundreds of supportive comments and reactions as thousands viewed the roller coaster culminating in a post stating: “We will be opening Friday at 5 p.m. The club will not be staffed until Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. Please share and like this post to help us spread the news to our members.”

“We have no desire to be the poster child or puff up our chest while we hold the American flag to show what we’re doing,” Neil Strother said Friday. “All we want to do is make a living. I just want our members to come in and work out.”

Since Cooper’s midweek announcement, the group “ReOpen NC’s Health Clubs” formed on Facebook with more than 4,300 members. The Strothers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with gym owners across the state also planning to reopen. While Neil Strother said he’s not part of a planned lawsuit against Cooper, he’s supportive of it and might join if necessary. 

“Our deepest desire is something breaks loose in the next week, and we don’t have to be involved in all this. This is not what we want, but we don’t know what else to do. I have to do something because I can’t just sit on my hands,” he said. “I think it will come down to how the city and county decide to enforce this because Gov. Cooper and the state police won’t come here and shut us down. It will be up to local officials to decide what to do, but I know officials in other towns are allowing certain businesses to operate.”

MISDEMEANOR CHARGE POSSIBLE

Wilson Mayor Carlton Stevens said he was stunned when gyms were excluded in the Phase 2 reopenings.

“I don’t understand the reasoning behind some businesses being allowed to open and others being required to remain closed,” Stevens said. “However, whether I agree or disagree with Gov. Cooper’s executive order, right now it is the law.”

Wilson police said they are approaching the governor’s safer-at-home order just as they did with the stay-at-home order. Police said they will continue to educate and warn people first. However, police are encouraging people and businesses to take the safer-at-home order seriously.

“The governor’s orders are designed to help prevent the virus from continuing to spread throughout our community,” said Sgt. Steve Stroud of the Wilson Police Department. “If a person or business continues to violate the governor’s orders in a clear-cut and substantial manner, we will confer with the DA’s office and seek criminal charges if necessary.”

State law says violation of emergency prohibition and restrictions is a Class 2 misdemeanor. According to North Carolina statute, any person who does any of the following has committed the offense: 

• Violates any provision of an ordinance or a declaration enacted or declared pursuant to state law. 

• Violates any provision of a declaration or executive order issued pursuant to state law. 

• Willfully refuses to leave the building as directed in a governor’s order issued pursuant to state law. 

A Class 2 misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen said the judgment on whether industries can or cannot operate is made based on the best public health data available.

“We do not condone violations of the order. However, it is not in our purview to enforce the order,” Ellen said. “Certainly if folks do not adhere to the recommended and required mitigation strategies, it affects our ability as a community to get ahead of this virus.”

OWNER WILL FIGHT

Neil Strother said that while he certainly doesn’t want a criminal charge, he’ll fight the allegation if he’s cited or arrested. 

Strother said he’s hopeful that members will use the sanitation stations to clean equipment before and after every use. 

“We are fortunate in that our gym is small. We never have more than 35 or 40 people in the club,” he said. “Under the 20% occupancy guideline, we could have 60 people in the club, and under the 50% capacity for retail, we could have 144 people. In our busiest time, we’ve never had 144 people in our club.”

While the Strothers have been unsuccessful at getting unemployment benefits, the bulk of their employees have been approved and reportedly receive more not working than when they staff the gym. For that reason, Neil Strother said he’ll be around the building in the coming days, but it won’t be staffed until Tuesday. 

Members are given a key card to open the doors around the clock, and Neil Strother has the system set up to notify him if too many people enter around the same time. 

Victory Fitness also received a roughly $25,000 Paycheck Protection Program grant, but the only way to have it forgiven is to use it for payroll within eight weeks of the award. Neil Strother said he hasn’t used the money because if the state keeps gyms closed until the third phase set to start June 26, the funds wouldn’t be forgivable.

“Even if we draw a line in the sand and stop every expense to operate this building, how do we have money on a monthly basis to pay our personal bills, make a car payment or our mortgage or even buy groceries?” Neil Strother said. “Tell me what business owner puts everything aside to be shut down for months with no revenue. We prepare for bad months, but we don’t prepare for this.”

Reporter Olivia Neeley contributed to this story. 

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