Gym Owners Take Action To Get States To Reopen Health Clubs

(Photo by Ole Schwander/iStock/Getty Images Plus.)

In several states in which health clubs are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health club operators have taken various steps to move for reopening of their businesses. (See the reopening status of states here, as tracked by the New York Times.)

North Carolina

In North Carolina, health club owners were preparing to reopen on May 22 as part of phase two reopening in the state, but then gyms were taken off the list of businesses allowed to reopen. The move could lead to gyms remaining closed for another five weeks on top of the two months they have already been closed.

In response to being taken out of phase two, a group of five club owners filed on May 27 a lawsuit against Gov. Roy Cooper and Executive Order 141, according to Raleigh, North Carolina, TV station ABC Channel 11.

The clubs filing the suit are Victory Fitness, Fit 4 Life, Good Bodies, Grandmaster Dong’s Martial Arts and Body Sculptors. In a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Ed Smith, owner of several Fit 4 Life locations in the state, said the gym owners would reopen on June 1, regardless of what the governor says.

Another group of club owners reportedly were trying to file a temporary restraining order that would allow them to reopen, Will Powell owner of Powell Fitness in Greensboro, North Carolina, told TV station WFMY 2 News.

Michigan

On May 22, more than 120 Michigan gyms under the group the League of Independent Fitness Facilities and Trainers sued Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Health and Human Services. The lawsuit alleges that orders from the two violate the U.S. Constitution and are not narrowly tailored to their purpose, as required under constitutional law. Gov. Whitmer recently extended the stay at home order from May 28 to June 12 due to continued increases in COVID-19 cases in the state.

Scott Erskine, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, noted in a press release announcing the lawsuit: “To date, the governor has not responded to at least three letters sent by the industry that outlined very specific measures that will allow gyms to reopen safely. My clients have stressed that they know how to open safely and are committed to doing so. It is nonsensical that an industry that is in such a unique position to bolster the physical and emotional health of Michiganders remains completely closed, while many other sectors (including restaurants and bars) are permitted to open.”

Minnesota

In Minnesota gyms are not slated to open until phase three of a four-phase plan by Gov. Tim Walz. No date has been set for when phase three will begin, but phase two begins on June 1. In response, a group of 100 CrossFit locations have banded together to ask the state to reclassify them from gyms to sports training facilities, which are allowed to open June 1, according to Fox 9 News. The CrossFit operators argue that their facilities are larger with smaller numbers of people who have to reserve a time to come in, so it is easier for them to physically distance people than other types of gyms.  Minnesota is headquarters to three of the larger health club brands: Life Time and Snap Fitness are both based in Chanhassen while Anytime Fitness is based in Woodbury.

Anytime Fitness CEO Chuck Runyon told the Star Tribune that he originally thought his clubs in the state would be allowed to reopen with modifications on June 1, and that the decision to not allow reopening at that time came without any reasoning.

“This pandemic is shining a spotlight on the impact of poor health. Our country’s not in good shape,” Runyon told the newspaper. “Through this entire pandemic, liquor stores, fast food restaurants and CBD businesses have been opened, but gyms were closed.”

However, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told the Star Tribune that gyms were not yet reopening because of the shared workout equipment and because people working out can expel into the air more viral droplets than people not working out, which is problematic when the state has yet to reach its peak in virus cases.

Ohio

In Ohio, gyms were officially allowed to reopen on May 26, but some gym owners had already reopened on May 21 after a judge sided with them in a lawsuit they had filed. A group of 35 Ohio club owners had sued the Ohio Department of Health for enforcing the state’s Stay Safe Ohio order that closed fitness centers among other businesses, claiming the order was too vague, criminalized gyms and violated operators’ right to equal protection. On May 20, Judge Eugene Lucci, who presides in the court of common pleas in Lake County, Ohio, ruled in favor of the gyms, saying the Ohio Department of Health had violated the private property rights of business owners and had exceeded its authority by criminalizing lawful businesses and that the director of the department has no authority to close all businesses.

Virginia

In Virginia, the stay-at-home order is in effect until June 10, but some businesses (salons, retail stores, campgrounds and outdoor dining at bars and restaurants) were allowed to reopen starting May 15. Gyms were not included. Merrill Hall, a franchisee of Gold’s Gym and other health clubs in Virginia, had filed an injunction request against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order 53 that closed businesses in the state to curb the spread of COVID-19. The lawsuit stated that Hall’s Gold’s Gym locations are private, membership-based health clubs and therefore are not fitness centers so are not included in the executive order, according to WHSV 3 TV station in Virginia. However, the Supreme Court of Virginia on May 19 rejected the injunction request. The rejection means that the order for businesses to remain close is still in effect, but it does not prevent Hall from moving forward with the lawsuit.

Washington

A stay at home order is in effect in Washington state until May 31. The state has a four-phase reopening plan, and phases can vary by counties. Personal training and small group classes of five people or less can reopen in phase two while health clubs can’t open until phase three and then only at 50 percent capacity, according to the governor’s office.

On May 21, Mike Jellison, owner of PA Fitness in Arlington, Washington, filed a lawsuit against the state claiming the state does not have the authority to close businesses. His lawsuit comes after the Washington Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against him and the owners of Northwest Fitness Co. on May 19 for violating Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay at home proclamation when they reopened their clubs in early May.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed consumer protection lawsuits against Jellison as well as Michael J. Baker and Shane D. Cowhig of Fitness 101 Team Puyallup (Northwest Fitness Co.). The attorney general alleged the business owners were endangering public health by being open and were violating the Consumer Protection Act by engaging in unfair business practices while their competitors adhered to the governor’s proclamation and remained closed. The Northwest Fitness Co. website notes that it has closed and is halting its protest as it seeks another solution to reopen.

A court can impose monetary penalties of up to $2,000 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act. The attorney general’s office said it would not seek monetary penalties if the businesses closed within 24 hours, which Jellison did, but then he filed his own lawsuit.

In addition to the state’s lawsuit, the City of Arlington notified PA Fitness owners in the form of a letter sent May 14 that the city has the right to revoke their business license, impose daily penalties, seek a court order to stop their operation, and refer the case for criminal prosecution. The city also offered to assist the owners in accessing relief programs and education about how to re-open when it is safe to do so.

Petitions

Club operators in some states are seeking signatures on petitions requesting that their states allow gyms to reopen now. Petitions are online for the following states:

Connecticut (Gyms not allowed to reopen until phase two on June 20)

Illinois (Gyms not allowed to reopen until phase three of a five-phase plan. Phase three begins on May 29.)

Minnesota (Gyms not allowed to reopen until phase three of a four-phase plan. Date undetermined)

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