Travis LaBazzo was hoping his small protest calling for Florida leaders to reopen gyms would get national attention, so when a news chopper hovered over the group of about 30 people, he called on everyone to drop down and do push-ups or squats.
"This will be great," someone can be heard saying in a Facebook livestream of the protest, which took place Monday outside the Pinellas County courthouse. "The fittest protest in America."
One demonstrator put an American flag in his mouth and dropped down to the sidewalk to do push-ups. Others balanced protest signs as they squatted for the television camera above. Within minutes, video of the stunt spread quickly across social media.
"I'm glad it got out there, but it completely lost the message," LaBazzo told BuzzFeed News. "People out there saying, 'You just proved you don't need the gym,' but it's not about that. It's about thousands of employees that are out of work in Florida."
Protests calling for the reopening of nonessential businesses have sprung up across the country in recent days, many of them headed by organizers calling stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus an attack on personal freedoms.
Some of the protests have lured right-wing militia groups suspicious of government overreach as well as conspiracy theorists who have called the pandemic a manufactured crisis.
But LaBazzo — whose Florida gyms have been closed for at least two months — said his protest was meant to focus on the frustrations of local businesses hurt by stay-at-home orders.
Instead, since video of the protest went viral, attention has now focused on how a group of gym owners, employees, and customers calling for the reopening of gyms demonstrated to the world they can still exercise while gyms are closed.
"IF YOU CAN DO SQUATS AND PUSH UPS ON THE SIDEWALK YOU CAN DO THEM IN YOUR LIVING ROOM AND DON'T NEED TO BE AT THE GYM," one person on Twitter pointed out. "YOU ABSOLUTE DING DONGS."
LaBazzo told BuzzFeed News he now thinks the idea to exercise for the cameras was a bad one, and he grants that the criticism about not needing a gym to work out is true. Still, he said, the point wasn't about getting back to exercise, but about the struggle of local businesses in his community.
"If you're [supportive] of going back to work, you automatically are told you want to get people sick, and that's not fair that there is no gray area in this thing," he said.
He said he's never been politically active or attended a protest, but the lack of clarity from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about when gyms and other businesses can reopen prompted him to organize the courthouse protest Monday.
A task force formed by DeSantis had originally proposed a more lenient opening during Phase 1, including the opening of gyms and barbershops with restrictions, but the governor opted for a more cautious approach. Instead, gyms are expected to reopen during Phase 2 of the governor's plan — but it's not yet clear exactly when that will happen.
"I did what we were supposed to do until he made this announcement," LaBazzo said.
LaBazzo had considered opening his gym anyway against the state's orders, he said, but he decided against it.
"One side says one thing, the other says another," he said. "All of this makes no sense."
The most frustrating part has been receiving mixed messages from local, state, and federal officials, he said, with one entity pushing for the reopening of businesses, another fighting against it, and no clear guidelines relayed to the public or business owners about what benchmarks need to be met.
"Why are we not allowed to open up, but you're allowed to go to Walmart, or a Home Depot?" he said. "We're very much a necessity for a lot of these people and yet we're being left out. I mean, we've had strip clubs that stayed open after gyms closed."
LaBazzo pointed out that Florida has deemed professional wrestling as "essential," while it's still unclear when his businesses can again open.
According to the state's guidelines, that would begin "once the governor determines it is suitable to continue re-opening and after fully considering medical data in consultation with state health officials."
LaBazzo added that he's already taken steps to implement social distancing in his gyms — including limiting capacity inside and closing some machines so that patrons are not exercising close to each other.
He also admitted that despite trying to assure people that gyms can keep people safe, the group of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse wasn't implementing some of the guidelines suggested by the CDC.
Most of the demonstrators were not wearing a mask, including LaBazzo, and most of them stood less than 6 feet of each other. Video of the demonstration shows that protesters only began to distance from each other when the news chopper hovered above.
LaBazzo said he feels that wearing a mask should be a choice. And despite efforts to stay 6 feet away from others, he said, even people who try to adhere to distancing are unable to do so all the time.
Still, he said he feels businesses should be trusted to enact measures to keep the people safe. Businesses can be guided to adopt measures to mitigate the risk.
"I wouldn't argue that," he said, "mainly because I don't want to be the guy that gets people more sick."