PACIFICA, CA — Pacifica Beach Yoga studio has become a place of controversy, igniting both local and online outrage as owner Thomas Antoon has maintained that he will keep his business open, despite health orders to close. Antoon has continued to hold indoor classes at the hot yoga studio where masks are not required.
Antoon says that he will remain open amidst record-high COVID-19 cases reported in San Mateo County, with over 7,000 cases reported over the last 30 days.
But Antoon said he will keep his doors open to serve his students and to keep earning a living.
“I’ve already lost one of my businesses. For them to tell me I’m not allowed to make a living is not fair,” Antoon told Patch in a phone interview. “I’m trying to survive here.”
Antoon has openly defied public health orders for months by continuing to hold in-person “mask-free, virus-free” yoga classes; the Pacifica local maintains that it’s his right to stay open.
Antoon’s other studio, Go2Yoga, which was located on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, closed in August after Antoon was unable to keep paying the rent amid the first round of closures prompted by a statewide stay-at-home order.
“What do they expect us to do? All the small businesses should just go out of business?” he said. “I’ve done what they said, I’ve stayed in place, it didn’t work so I opened my business back up. I don’t plan on closing my business ever again.”
Antoon, a Donald Trump supporter, has been flagged on Yelp and scrutinized online for his political posts on the business’s Facebook page and for posting such hashtags #maskfree and #fearfree.
The owner is also known for his criticism of the virus’s validity and the state’s health orders, claiming that the numbers have been fabricated. He’s repeatedly balked at other businesses for following the orders, calling them “cowards” on Facebook.
“People are out there saying I don’t believe in the virus, I never said that,” Antoon said. “I said the virus isn’t as deadly as they thought, it’s not as deadly as they’re saying.”
Despite the #nomask hashtags on many of his Facebook posts, Antoon said he hasn’t told anyone not to wear a mask in his studio.
“We don’t say take your masks off,” Antoon said. “I don’t know how they do it in 105 degrees, if it’s 105 degrees and you’re practicing with a mask on, that’s pretty amazing if you ask me.”
The 59-year-old business owner said he’s received more than 50 threatening phone calls, with one man threatening to assault Antoon on Monday.
“I have a guy on voicemail saying they were going to come by today with guys, they said ‘we’re going to bust you up with baseball bats, we’re going to beat the **** out of you, who do you think you are staying open?'” Antoon said. “I mean come on.”
Heather Forshey, who leads San Mateo County’s COVID Compliance Unit, told ABC7 that 723 complaints had been filed to the unit, which prompted 80 written warnings to the business.
There is no question that Antoon is equally as outraged about the health orders as others are enraged that he keeps his doors open. But it remains to be seen whether the county will take further action against Antoon for keeping his business open.
According to the county’s website, businesses that defy the order will incur a first warning, followed by a citation with penalties between $250 and $3,000 per instance, “depending on the gravity of the health risk.”
The county did not immediately respond to Patch for comment.
Antoon said he has been contacted by the county and also received a visit from one of the city’s councilmembers, which he said was relatively friendly, but he did not specify whether he had been issued a citation or a fine.
“I’m not forcing people to come into my business, I open my doors and they make the choice to come in,” he said. “If someone says hey I live with somebody that I’m worried about, ok ‘I understand that and I respect you for that, I’m surprised you even want to come. ‘”
Antoon also said he attempted to host online classes but low attendance pushed him to open back up.
“The fact that people say ‘he’s profiting from this,’ profiting?” Antoon said. “I only get like 10 people in the room and I’m used to 27 people in the room, I barely make enough to pay the teacher, make a little for myself and pay half the rent.”
Antoon also raises the argument that hot yoga, otherwise known as Bikram yoga, can’t be conducted through an online format since classes are typically held in a room that is 80 to 105 degrees.
“I have people calling me up saying I going to kill myself if I can’t do my yoga,” Antoon said. “If [they] feel safe here then [they’re] going to come because it’s going to help [their] mental health, physical well being and everything else.”
Nearly two years ago, Antoon said he underwent a coronary bypass from which he is still recovering from and said that closure would not be an option for him financially.
“I’m still recovering, I’ve got a broken sternum it’s in 12 pieces from the surgery,” he said. ” I was supposed to retire, that’s gone. I can’t do nothing now. I can’t close this studio.”