ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WKBW) — Christmas wrapping paper and hand-written signs reading “call us Governor Cuomo” cover the Orchard Park and East Aurora SNAP Fitness locations. You cannot see inside either gym’s windows—both on main streets in their villages.
From the outside, it looks like the gym is closed——as per the executive order from New York State in Orange Zones like East Aurora and Orchard Park. It’s what members say is happening inside that is both alarming, and violates the state’s shut down order.
“I got another e-mail yet again today and they’re saying to keep it on the quiet, but they are opening after speaking with several business people in the area.”
7 Eyewitness News was contacted by a concerned gym member at the East Aurora SNAP fitness location. The whistleblower provided e-mails sent to members by gym management.
The e-mail, sent to members of the SNAP fitness database says,
“Dear Snap Family
After speaking with many other local businesses- we have made the decision to reopen December 1st! We need your utmost discretion in regards to this as it needs to remain on the downlow. We care about our members & keeping you healthy by remaining active!”
“To ask members to defy the governor’s orders is ridiculous and also unsafe," said the whistleblower. “With them starting with they want us to be healthy by staying active, obviously our numbers in East Aurora and surrounding areas are very shocking, and alarming. Every single family I know has someone in their family who is sick, some are in the hospital. I think that it is flaunting their desire to make money over public health.”
The e-mail goes on to say,
“Since we turned off the billing this month; we will require the following from any member that wishes to return to using the gym for December only(we will proceed on a month by month basis):
We will reopen on the basis that you are "renting" the gym, so we will have you sign a rental agreement. Each member that wishes to return will need to pay cash/check of $35 for individual or $55 for joint membership for the month. We CANNOT take credit cards at this time. Members will need to come during staffed hours to sign rental agreement and pay cash for the month. We will provide you with a receipt We will be staffed from 9:30-10:30 a.m. & 5:30-6:30 p.m. each day. Your access cards will let you in to workout 24/7. Backdoor in EA will be open only.”
So is renting space out of a gym to workout allowed under the executive order? 7 Eyewitness News then took those concerns to the Erie County Health Department and the state.
A spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo’s office sent the following statement:
"Gyms and fitness centers are clearly not allowed to operate in orange and red zones -- something this gym all but admits by telling patrons to keep the arrangement 'on the downlow.' We understand the stress business owners are under, but these rules are meant to keep New Yorkers safe during a dangerous increase in COVID cases, and public health must always come first. We have referred this business to local authorities for investigation and enforcement."
Gym management tells a very different story. 7 Eyewitness News spoke in-person with both the gym owner and gym manager. Both wish to remain unidentified for personal reasons.
"We are not the violators, we are the victims," said the East Aurora branch manager. "Show us where it says we are not keeping our members safe."
Gym management says there is absolutely no data that shows gyms, or their gym for example is the cause of widespread COVID-19 disease.
"We are struggling to stay alive," they said of the business.
Both say they understand the e-mail looks "alarming" but say it wasn't meant to go out to the public saying "we're open" but rather a few die-hard members who want to rent the space. Gym management says between East Aurora and Orchard Park, they have only been able to retain about 20 members total throughout the pandemic.
SNAP East Aurora believes the governor's rules create too much of a "blanket" covering all gyms under one category. The owners say they're a small boutique gym, that, with a more than $6,000 a month mortgage payment are just trying to stay afloat.
"The door isn't open for people to just come and go," they said. "We are not open to the public, we are not taking new members, we are not billing on a monthly basis. We're not even making any money off of this."
The owners say the Gov. Cuomo's executive order mentions nothing about, "renting space."
“This is basic community concern at this point,” the whistleblower said. “I care morally and ethically that it’s the wrong thing to do at this time. You can’t even get an elective surgery right now in Erie County, but you can go to the gym and sweat and breathe next to someone else?”
They went on to say, "they’re assuming that their entire clientele thinks this is right if they’re sending this out to everyone who has been a member.”
This story comes on the heels of another Orchard Park gym, Athletes Unleashed, who’s owner planned to “reopen” after he was fined $15,000 for holding a gathering, but he did not open his doors.
In the e-mail, SNAP Fitness said all rules still apply of mask usage and sanitation, for those who wish to return to the gym under the rental agreement.
Orchard Park Councilmember Connor Flynn says, “We have received the complaint and it has been sent to our code enforce officer. Local governments, including the Town of Orchard Park, have authority under Section 16 of the NYS public health law to enforce the governor’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses, limiting assembly, requiring social distancing, and requiring masks. A fine of up to $15,000 can be assessed for violators.”
He goes on to say this type of violation could have lasting impacts on the entire town.
“The Town of Orchard Park not only has authority to enforce; it has the duty to enforce the governor’s COVID restrictions. Gov. Cuomo's office and the New York State Department of Health have been very clear: the state will withhold state aid for localities, including the Town of Orchard Park, in COVID-19 cluster zones that fail to enforce these public health laws.”
The gym sent the following statement
SNAP East Aurora and Orchard Park are small boutique clubs consisting of loyal, caring members. Our members are invested in the clubs and, in turn, we care about them. We sent a private email communication to those limited members offering options to stay well in these trying times. Our email had options. One option was to rent the club for their own purpose at different times indicated through a rental agreement. We apologize for the misinterpretation that “we are opening” as if in operation. We have not opened our facilities to the public. We are not accepting new members. We are not allowing guests. We are not allowing SNAP reciprocal members to enter the clubs. We are simply not open and we are compliant with the executive order requiring our business to close until further notice.
The statement continues
In the 92-days we were allowed to be open, we had over 2,560 check-ins with 0-Covid cases reported in East Aurora and 2,432 check-ins in Orchard Park with 0-Covid cases reported. We are not a "super spreader" and politicians have all but ruined our reputation in classifying our industry, but also by including our boutique clubs with smaller membership numbers. We only retained 20% of our memberships after being closed for 6-full months. This does not cover rent, utilities, and more, not to mention payroll. Now we are shut down again.
To date, we have no statistics or data that unequivocally demonstrates we are a risk to the community or our loyal members. But we are forced to endure another closing. We have families, but no paychecks and continuing costs in order to maintain our businesses for the
long-term. However, the long-term is starting to prove to be too expensive. Politicians who set these rules have paychecks. We are taking one step every day closer to the bankruptcy court doorsteps.