A gathering of about 50 business owners and their supporters inside an Orchard Park gym shut down by Covid-19 restrictions turned into a confrontation with Erie County authorities Friday night.
The owner of the gym, Athletes Unleashed on California Road, described the gathering as a protest of the state's "orange zone" regulations that have closed gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential.
No one was cited and no arrests were made, according to two people who attended, but video of the incident shows an Erie County health inspector accompanied by three sheriff's deputies arriving about 20 minutes after the gathering began.
"It absolutely was a protest – inside my building," said the gym's owner, Robby Dinero, who described the state's rules forcing some businesses to close as arbitrary.
The video, which circulated on social media Saturday morning, shows a tense back and forth, with one deputy pointing out that people weren't wearing masks and the protesters accusing county representatives of trespassing and entering the property without a warrant.
"Get out! Get out!" the group can be heard over and over as the health inspector and deputies exited the gym. Several people followed them out, holding up their cellphones to record the incident.
The confrontation showed frustrations bubbling as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into a ninth month and new restrictions shut down schools and certain businesses in much of Erie County amid a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Erie County on Friday surpassed 20,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic as the Western New York region posted new records of daily cases.
In an attempt to slow the spread, New York State has shuttered what it describes as "high-risk" businesses, including gyms, barbershops and hair salons in areas of Erie County designated as an "orange zone." Indoor dining has also been banned at restaurants and bars, which already have to stop serving everything but takeout food by 10 p.m. Many suburban school districts must switch to virtual learning starting Monday, while Buffalo schools have been remote-only since March.
The shutdowns have prompted some citizens to plan protests on Sunday, while some law enforcement officials have declared they have no intention of counting guests at Thanksgiving dinners.
Several sheriffs across the state, among them Erie County's own Tim Howard and Niagara County's Michael J. Filicetti, have said they refuse to break up Thanksgiving dinners even if they exceed the new statewide 10-person limit on gatherings.
“I have no plans to utilize my office’s resources or Deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” Howard said in a statement.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said on Twitter Saturday that he had learned about a protest planned to take place near his house in Buffalo on Sunday. Organizers circulated plans over the weekend calling for people to drive around the area while honking their horns or to march with drums, bullhorns and pots and pans to make noise.
Poloncarz criticized the organizers for asking people to bring "pictures of elderly who have been locked in internment camps" and encouraging people to "dress as slaves or anything else creative."
"If the people behind this planned protest think this will weaken our resolve to protect the public from the Coronavirus they are wrong," Poloncarz wrote.
I am aware of a loud protest planned for tomorrow (11/22) at 9:30 am to target my house and my immediate neighborhood. I am posting this now so my neighbors are aware.Please read my statement on this and their despicable reference to "internment camps" and "dress up as slaves." pic.twitter.com/0itDFwrDYo— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) November 21, 2020
Dinero, the owner of the California Road gym, told The Buffalo News Saturday that there was nothing illegal about the gathering at his gym on Friday.
"I called this meeting together so we could protest the closing of small businesses, the handpicking of winners and losers," Dinero said.
As a protest, Dinero said, the gathering was protected by law.
Dinero pointed out that authorities didn't try to stop Black Lives Matter protests over the summer or celebrations of Joe Biden's victory after the election. "It was no problem for people to come out then," he said.
Dinero said he refused to shut down earlier this spring but was visited by a Orchard Park building inspector, accompanied by two police officers, who threatened to revoke his certificate of occupancy and shut off his utilities if he didn't comply.
"What kind of tactics are those?" he questioned.
He ended up shutting down, Dinero said.
Tim Walton, a Buffalo bartender and event promoter who was at the gym Friday night, posted a video on his blog of the interaction. By 8 a.m., the blog post had been visited more than 18,000 times and he had received inquiries about the incident from national media.
Walton said the people at the gym Friday night aren't denying the existence of Covid-19.
"Nobody is sitting around saying this isn't real," said Walton.
He said the group is frustrated by what they believe is the arbitrariness of who gets shut down.
Gyms were allowed to open before movie theaters, he said. But now gyms have to close again and movie theaters can remain open.
Meanwhile, malls can be open, even for Black Friday. "It's the busiest shopping day of the year but a hair salon with two people in it can't be open?" Walton questioned. "There's just so much that doesn't make sense."
Business owners are willing to work within restrictions, Walton said.
"They want to open their businesses," he said.
Neither the health inspector nor the deputies specified what rules Dinero and the people inside his gym Friday evening were breaking, Dinero said.
"We are gathering information and will have more to share in our press conference on Monday," said Health Department spokeswoman Kara Kane in an emailed comment.
Dinero and Walton said they are in the process of organizing "some very dynamic protests" in the near future, Dinero said. The gym owner said the protests won't be violent. "This isn't a Second Amendment thing. This is not anti-vaxxers. There will be no guns, no fistfights. We're civil, peaceful protesters but it'll be led by a Marine." Dinero served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
He also vowed to celebrate Thanksgiving the way he wants to.
"I'm going to have a huge family gathering and we're not going to wear masks," he said.