Business

Gym owners sue Cooper over restrictions keeping them closed

Posted May 27, 2020 7:07 a.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2020 7:46 p.m. EDT

— Gym owners from across eastern North Carolina filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Roy Cooper, alleging that restrictions he put in place during the coronavirus pandemic keeping their businesses closed are unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs want a judge to void the governor's latest pandemic-related executive order because it infringes on their right to earn a living as guaranteed by the state constitution. They also want the judge to declare a section of the state Emergency Management Act that Cooper has invoked as a basis for his orders unconstitutional.

"The General Assembly does not possess the authority to prohibit the right of individuals to pursue an ordinary vocation and earn a living. It therefore cannot give that right to
municipalities and counties, and in this case to the governor," the lawsuit states.

When Cooper laid out a three-phase plan last month to resume business and social activities statewide amid the pandemic, fitness centers were part of the second part of the plan. But when the governor actually moved the state into Phase 2 on May 22, gyms were left out, forcing them to remain closed for at least five additional weeks.

Many gym owners say being kept closed is harmful, not helpful.

"The fitness industry as a whole has been ignored," said personal trainer Rich Hooten, who owns Body Scupltors Inc. in Greenville. "I got tired of cheering from the sidelines and decided to get into the game. Nobody else was standing up for the small businesses – the small personal training studios, Pilates, yoga, dance, dojos."

Like Hooten, Robin Gardner-Smith and Ed Smith, who own about a dozen Fit4Life health clubs across the state, are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They said Cooper's restrictions are unnecessary, arguing that they can operate safely.

Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said they’re trying to prevent a spike in the number of cases, but gym owners say it's not fair to pick and choose which businesses can open.

Katherine Rice, who owns the Art of Motion Pilates in Southern Pines, said she mostly works one-on-one with clients. She compared her services to those offered at a hair salon, saying it doesn’t make sense that people can get their hair cut and colored for hours but not exercise, contributing to their overall health.

"We’re no different than any other business," Rice said. "We know how to socially distance. We’re smart people – we are people in the wellness business. So, why are we lumped as an irresponsible group of people that don’t know how to conduct a business?"

Hooten agreed, saying people need to work out to remain healthy during the pandemic.

"We have a lot of clients who are contacting us saying they are strained and stressed," he said. "We have treated people or helped people who had cancer. We had one client who has debilitating physical disease."

"I totally understand and feel for the local business owner, and we want them to get back on track as best as possible, but I think what we are trying to do is give really safe guidance on how to do that," said Dr. Amir Barzin of UNC Health. "If you think about just physically exerting yourself – heavy breathing, coughing, sweating – things that make us more likely to spread a contagion are more likely in an areas where you're physically exerting yourself such as a gym."

Rice said many of her clients are struggling with osteoporosis and other painful conditions during the pandemic.

"The biggest thing is to watch my clients deteriorate and knowing that it’s just devastating – it’s mental and physical," she said.

Rice could have argued her business is essential, providing Pilates therapy to people who need it for medical reasons, but Cooper said on May 8 that the state Department of Revenue had stopped accepting applications from businesses that wanted to be listed as essential.

Regardless of the outcome of the gym lawsuit, Smith and his wife said they plan to reopen Fit4Life next Monday. Other gym owners have already reopened, based on videos and statements posted on social media.

In addition to gyms, bars and indoor entertainment venues like movie theaters were left out of the revised Phase 2 plans.

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