CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — A Virginia judge has rejected a petition from a gym owner who sought to reopen his facilities despite an executive order requiring the closure of fitness centers and other nonessential businesses.
At a hearing conducted by telephone, Circuit Court Judge Claude Worrell said Virginia law gives the governor broad authority to issue executive orders during a public health emergency like the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merrill Hall, who owns a chain of Gold’s Gym franchises and other gyms, sued the governor in Culpeper County Circuit Court. Gyms owned by Hall include the Gold’s Gym Gayton Crossing in Henrico County and the Gold’s Gym in Midlothian. He said the governor exceeded his authority and that the closures have him on the brink of financial ruin.
An 8News legal analyst weighed in on what the decision means moving forward.
“If he were to allow Gold’s Gym to essentially defy the Governor’s order and a customer of Gold’s were to get COVID-19 and suffer consequences as a result of that, there could be a liability there,” said Russ Stone, who told 8News the decision only sets a precedent in the Culpeper area. “And the judge even commented on that and said opening them up to liability was just not something he was willing to do.
“Somebody in Henrico, or Richmond, or any other jurisdiction other than Culpeper could say that that ruling is simply wrong and try to get a circuit judge in a different jurisdiction to rule differently,” he added.
Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens argued that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s orders are reasonable considering the public health threat and that more than 40 other states have acted similarly with regard to fitness centers.
Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office defended the governor in the case, said he will continue to support “the Governor’s targeted, effective measures to slow the spread of the virus.”
“Social distancing continues to be the most important thing we can do to keep our communities safe,” Herring said in a written statement. “While I understand there are many hardships that come with these critical safety measures, we must remember that we are all working together to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe and healthy.”
Hall’s lawyers, Sen. William M. “Bill” Stanley (Franklin County) and Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (Hanover), said they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“Mr. Hall’s businesses and livelihood, and the health and well being of his members, are being negatively affected by the governor’s executive order, which imposes criminal penalties in defiance of the law,” said Stanley. “Appealing this decision is necessary and essential, not only to protect Mr. Hall’s rights, but the rights of all Virginians.”
The case is one of several in recent weeks challenging various aspects of Northam’s executive orders shutting down activity in the state to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Last week, a judge in Lynchburg said a gun range there could reopen, ruling that the right to bear arms outweighed the governor’s emergency authority. Other cases in state and federal court have found in favor of Northam’s authority.
Worrell said he viewed the gym owner’s lawsuit differently than the Lynchburg case because “we’re not talking about a fundamental constitutional right” when discussing fitness centers.
He acknowledged that balancing the harm to Hall’s businesses against the potential threat that a re-opening would pose to public health is difficult because there is “so little information about the spread of the virus.” Ultimately, though, he said he does not believe he has the authority to rescind any aspects of the governor’s order unless there was evidence the governor was acting in bad faith or violating individuals’ constitutional rights.
Stanley, who is also a Republican state senator, said he wasn’t questioning the governor’s motives, but instead arguing that Northam simply lacked the authority to act as he had.
He said Hall had a plan in place to to keep his gyms clean and implement social distancing to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. And he said there’s no reason to believe the gyms would be any more likely to spread the coronavirus that supermarkets, liquor stores, or large home improvement stores like Home Depot, all of which have been allowed to remain open.
Stone Told 8News he believes more lawsuits are on the horizon as a result of restrictions set in place.
“The longer this goes on the more businesses are being hurt by it, and it’s a difficult thing because there are equities on both sides of the argument. Obviously, we do have something dangerous going on and people have died from it. On the other hand, there are a lot of people being hurt by it economically.”
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