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N.Y. gym owners ask why they can't reopen 

NYS Fitness Association, Facebook page

The rate of transmission of the coronavirus in New York state remains low, and all regions of the state have been in the final phase of reopening for at least a month.

But some industries have been left out of those plans and remain closed. Owners of gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and other indoor-based businesses held a news conference to ask why they aren’t allowed to reopen.

Meanwhile, 1,500 gyms in New York have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that the state offer a reopening plan. 

Gyms, yoga studios and wedding planners, among others, said they’ve lost millions of dollars and have had to lay off hundreds of workers since they were shut down in mid-March. 

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Kristi Redl, owner of All Sport Health and Fitness in the Hudson Valley, said she’s had to lay off most of her 250 employees. She said she and her sisters, who co-own the business, have invested money in new safety features, including special air purification filters, and closed the locker rooms. 

“We have redesigned the club” to ensure safe social distancing, Redl said, adding that they would also perform temperature checks. 

Jackie Mangiamele runs Lyceum Cinemas in Red Hook, which has been closed since March. She said the theater has lost over $1 million during the shutdown.

Lyceum owns two other movie theaters in Vermont, which have been open for over a month with strict safety protocols in place, and there's been no evidence of any virus transmission so far. Mangiamele said gatherings are allowed in New York in other venues that might not have taken as many safety steps as her theater intends to do.  

“It’s totally insane that in New York, 50 people may attend a public gathering of any legal sort in a moldy old barn, but those same 50 people cannot watch a film in a clean auditorium that might have 200 or more chairs,” said Mangiamele.  

The small-business owners praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his efforts in managing the pandemic that has led to New York -- once the epicenter of COVID-19 in the nation -- now having one of the lowest rates of transmission of any state. But they said he and his staff need to work with them to give them a reopening date and help them with safety guidelines. 

“We are willing to go by any guideline the governor is willing to tell us,” Redl said. “The problem is there has been no communication. He has gone radio silent.”  

The news conference was organized by state Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who ran on the GOP ticket for governor against Cuomo in 2018, also attended. But it’s not just Republicans in state government who have expressed concerns. Albany-area Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, a Democrat, has also asked that gyms and other closed venues be allowed to safely reopen. 

Cuomo, speaking on Aug. 6, expressed concerns that the gyms, theaters and other venues might not be safe to reopen, calling them “dangerous activities." 

“We have some data here. We have experience here," Cuomo said. "We know gyms are highly problematic.  Not from our experience, because we haven’t opened them, but we know from the other states they've been highly problematic. We know from the other states. They opened them and they had to close them. That's a fact.”

Don Murphy, vice president of the New York State Fitness Alliance, said he and the others don’t know of any data that the governor is referring to that shows gyms are unsafe if social distancing, personal protective equipment and other measures like increased air filtering are put in place. 

“We’re not aware of what he is referring to,” said Murphy, who added the governor should provide the data so that any safety issues can be resolved. 

“This is about finding solutions,” he said. “Not keeping industries shut down forever.” 

Murphy said his group has prepared a multi-page plan endorsed by a Chicago-based health expert at Loyola University that he said shows the reopening can be done safely. 

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, who is also helping with other duties during the pandemic, said state officials are reviewing the reopening plans sent to them by the gyms. 

“We're going to continue to look at it, again, we're looking at various alternatives, but right now it's still high-risk activity, and as we're seeing increases in other states and clusters in other states, they’ll continue to remain closed until we think they could open safely,” Mujica said.

Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall, when asked about the data mentioned by the governor, provided links to numerous accounts of gyms around the country that reopened and caused outbreaks of the virus.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.