WILMINGTON — TF Fitness + Nutrition, a gym with two Wilmington locations, received a warning letter from New Hanover County Public Health on Dec. 3.
Signed by health director Phillip Tarte, the letter stated that health officials have been receiving complaints regarding the gym’s lack of compliance with executive orders regarding face covering requirements and capacity limits since June.
“Specifically, the local health department has received complaints June 19, July 15, July 20, July 28, September 2, November 23, and December 1, 2020,” the letter states.
TF Fitness was informed that, while the gym could continue to operate, it “must do so under full compliance with N.C. Executive Order No. 180,” which was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Nov. 23. The order bolstered existing mask-wearing requirements, while also authorizing law enforcement to cite individuals or businesses that failed to comply.
“We’ve only had to issue two of these letters,” Tarte said in an interview Tuesday. “What we want to do is educate facilities rather than be on the enforcement side.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, county health departments have taken on more authority in the realm of mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. One of the most severe penalties health departments can levy, which so far has not been employed in New Hanover County, is an Imminent Hazard Abatement Order, which acts like a cease-and-desist notice to businesses and individuals whose actions represent a documentable threat to public health.
The letter represents a warning from public health officials — while its language does not compel TF Fitness to alter its practices, it indicates that continued failure to comply with pandemic-related regulations could result in charges.
“Finally, please be advised that violating any provision of N.C. Executive Order 180 is a Class 2 misdemeanor,” the letter concluded. “Continued failure to cooperate and abide by the restrictions in the Executive Order may result in legal action. Further, it is within the legal authority of local public health to declare TF Fitness + Nutrition a public health imminent hazard and require immediate abatement of such hazard …”
Tarte said his office receives complaints from residents through various channels, including its Coronavirus Call Center. After receiving complaints, health officials visit the businesses, assess the situation, and urge management to follow legal requirements.
“Our intent is to ensure that you’re compliant and you can continue to operate,” Tarte said. “At the point we come back and you’re still not doing that, you leave us no choice but to take action to ensure that you are not spreading disease to others.”
The county has performed at least 428 consultations with businesses — which either proactively requested the advice of health officials, or received a visit after public health caught wind of complaints. Tarte said he has seen compliance in “99%” of businesses.
“I’ve been to many gyms; I’ve watched them comply,” he said. “It hasn’t seemed to be a problem. There are some that are not complying with those orders. And those are the ones that we want to make sure do, moving forward.”
TF Fitness management did not return voicemail messages and an email by the time of publication.
Nick Kentrolis, the owner of the Crest Fitness Club near Wrightsville Beach, said that after gyms were allowed to reopen, his organization decided to only take on new members if they were a friend of an existing member and a permanent resident of the area. Further, the club did not decrease its membership costs.
Kentrolis said that gym operators throughout the state were dismayed when state authorities delayed the reopening of fitness centers. He added that once gyms were allowed to operate, some establishments took measures to recoup lost income that, though perhaps financially necessary, were likely not aligned with public health interests.
“The ones that charge so little for their memberships that they have to pack the place in with people, I’m not necessarily sure they’re doing the right thing for their people,” Kentrolis said. “When the governor limited our ability to enroll people and have people in there, they shouldn’t have dropped the price of their membership when they got open, just so they can get people in there.”
Kentrolis specifically named TF Fitness and Planet Fitness as gyms that dropped fees and heavily recruited new members.
“That’s what happened at some of those places,” he said. “They went low price and they’re packing them out. So that might be why they’re getting the complaints.”
According to people who have worked out at the gym, TF Fitness is popular due to its new equipment, adherence to a serious culture of fitness, and for some, because requirements to wear a mask are lax.
Tarte said he did not recall the other establishment that was sent a similar letter in recent months, but noted that almost all instances of complaints have been remedied by a visit from public health officials. He said members of his staff visited TF Fitness in the time since the letter was sent on Dec. 3.
“They just want to get back to business,” Tarte said. “We just want to help them get back in a safe manner.”
Update: On Wednesday, after an interview, TF Fitness owner Skip Lennon sent Port City Daily the following statement:
As owner of both locations of TF Fitness + Nutrition in Wilmington, I want to quickly respond to allegations in a recent story that we were warned by the Health Department for not being compliant with mask mandates in our state. We received a letter from the Health Department on December 4th and I immediately spoke with a representative there about this letter. I was told this was not a warning but a letter going out since they have received 6 complaints regarding our gyms since June of this year. These were complaints not violations. The majority of these complaints were deemed not viable as our facilities were visited by local law enforcement after the complaints and found we were compliant and doing what we can to ensure the safety of our members. We have not once been traced to any Covid cases with the contact tracing measures in place. We take these mandates, as well as the health and safety of our members very seriously. We have posted at both of our locations regarding the mask mandates. But we are also aware that here are many conflicting studies regarding the safety of wearing masks while exercising. We do not want to be liable for any health issues it may cause our members. We have gone to extra safety measures, adding a new air purification system in both locations and use medical grade electrostatic spray sanitation that does not just fog the air but binds the sanitation to surfaces. This sanitation is recommended to be done every 4 to 6 weeks but we are utilizing this service every 2 weeks in both locations.
We are adhering to mandates while also doing our best to keep our facilities open for our member’s physical health, mental health and well-being.
We are in contact with Phillip Tarte at the Health Department and other local officials. We will continue to be in close contact with them as we move forward.
Send tips and comments to Preston at firstname.lastname@example.org