CLAYTON —At the Fit4Life Gym in Clayton, almost two dozen owners of fitness clubs, dance studios and gyms from across the state held a meeting attended by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. For over an hour, participants aired their frustrations and asked repeatedly why their industry is being kept shuttered by Gov. Roy Cooper’s phase two order.
Fit4Life is owned and operated by Edward Smith and his wife, Robin. The pair are just two of many who formed the Reopen NC Health Clubs group on Facebook.
The in-person attendees of the meeting held at Fit4Life sat in a semi-circle, social distanced from one another but were connected by the impact the governor’s orders are having on their lives and businesses. Frustration came from many attendees over the “contradictions of who can open, how and why.”
Craig Cadogan and Danny Richani are a married couple who live in the Wilmington area with their 11-year-old daughter. The pair are franchise owners of a HotWorx Infrared Fitness Studio which they opened on Feb. 14, just before closures across the country began due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The pair had worked in the corporate world for a long time and decided the long hours they were putting in might as well be at a job working for themselves.
“We put all our life’s savings into it, because we believe in it,” Richani said. The couple has had to sell property and a family heirloom in order to stay afloat. Cadogan says it has been a “punch to the gut.”
Richani and Cadogan both said they were proponents of flattening the curve and had even shut their gym down a few days before Cooper’s mandate came down. Richani said they “wanted to make sure everyone was healthy and safe.”
Cadogan and Richani said that they did receive $19,000 in federal PPP loans, but that money went to paying employees who depend on them and to the gym’s rent. That left the couple with hard choices to make.
“One of the first things I had to cut was our insurance because I couldn’t afford the mortgage at this point,” Richani told Forest. “We are not selfish. We care about others. My family is essential. At the very least, they are essential to me.”
“I just find it insulting and heartbreaking – and forgive me, but … that we have to prove out value as humans, as people, as citizens in this community and the great state of North Carolina… that we have to prove our value and that we’re worth having a life,” said Richani tearfully. “We need your help, sir.”
“That’s what we’re here for and listen, my heart breaks for you,” said Forest adding that for eight weeks, he and his wife Alice have been traveling around the state hearing from business owners just those there today.
Forest says that the people need to be heard, that they are frustrated and that he’s there to listen. He says that as a government representative, “you’re going to take some barbs.” Forest said it is very important to hear these stories so that mistakes are not repeated in the future.
“You shouldn’t just hide behind your position,” said Forest. “You want to see their passions come out because their lives are being destroyed. This is their life.”
There was concern that the slow summer months were rapidly approaching when memberships drop-off and that gyms, dance studios and related facilities need to open now in order to salvage their businesses.
One owner asked Forest about rumors that the Cooper administration was allegedly setting up some type of compensation fund for restaurant industry and then asked what was going to be done to make fitness industry business owners “whole again.”
Forest responded that the purse strings are controlled by the General Assembly and that North Carolina was in much better shape heading into the virus crisis than other states with $2 billion in the unemployment fund and $3 billion in the state’s “Rainy Day” fund. He said that in committee meetings held this week, the state will be around $5 billion dollars short in the budget.
“Personally, I think we have years of damage,” said Forest. “There is nobody in this room who will not feel the consequences of this shutdown probably for years.”
“It’s actually the state – the government – that has driven me and many of my colleagues into poverty or near poverty or out of business. It’s the state,” said Molotov Mitchell, a former candidate for state senate and owner of the Durham martial arts studio called Triangle Krav Maga. “And I don’t think it’s just about making people whole. I don’t use this word loosely, but there needs to be reparations at this point. There needs to be repair.”
Mitchell pressed Forest and said there needs to be some sort of plan more than just letting gyms open.
“I get it,” said Forest. “And I’ve said this from day one, the government’s got a moral responsibility in this now. If the government is shutting down private businesses all across the country, the government has a moral responsibility to make them whole.”
Forest went on to say that everyone on their call and sitting around in-person at the meeting must realize that “you are the government.”
“Guess what? It’s your money that pays you back,” Forest said to Mitchell, adding that as taxpayers their tax money is what is paying to make people whole.
“Without you being open, without you putting money into the government coffers, there is no money. It doesn’t grow on trees. You don’t print it. You don’t borrow it from other countries. It comes from you,” said Forest. “The faster we get this thing open, the better it is for everybody. That needs to be job number one, because there is no free money.”
Renee Jones, who runs Inspiration Dance Academy, said that state officials should be paying attention to the petitions she and others have started which have garnered tens of thousands of signatures. She said that leaders and officials should “count those signatures as votes” and that a lot of people are upset.
“The little bit of savings that we had for my daughter who is getting ready to go to college is gone,” said Jones. “We used that to keep the business going.”
Jones said that parents want their children to come back to class at her academy and that closure of her business is having a negative mental, emotional and physical impact on her students.
“My husband is military. He’s been in another country since last July. I’ve been going through this all on my own,” Jones said. “We put all of our life’s savings into our business. I can’t afford to be closed until we are in phase three. I just can’t afford it.”
Several people, including Jones, said it was an insult that fitness and dance business owners were not allowed the opportunities that other businesses were. She and the other attendees all said they “were ready” and had invested in cleaning supplies and had set up safety measures believing they would be opening up in phase two.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Jones.
At least two members of the group said they or employees had applied for unemployment but had yet to receive a check. Forest told the group that his office will try to help them as best they can and said that his office staff of just five people had helped around 5,500 people so far.
Forest told the group that “elections have consequences” and “every single vote counts.” He also told the group to get serious about an association because they need someone fighting on their behalf when the decisions are being made.
“You need an association,” said Forest. “What you found out here is that the people with the lobbyists, the people with all the lawyers, that have the money to go to Raleigh and to go to the governor and to be real loud in their ear – those are the people who have associations.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Robin Smith said that the suit filed on behalf of Reopen NC Health Clubs is hoping to see their request for a temporary restraining order sometime on Tuesday, June 2. She said if the restraining order doesn’t come through, their legal counsel expects to file for an injunction.
Reopen NC Health Clubs’ complaint is the second such suit filed against the governor. On May 27, an attorney representing Jason Morgan, the owner and operator of MuscleWorx Fitness, filed a complaint seeking a temporary restraining order against Cooper’s executive order 130 and all other orders that mention gyms, health clubs or fitness facilities.