CULPEPER, Va. (CN) — A Virginia judge sided with the governor Thursday in a dispute over whether a chain of gyms represented by Republican lawmakers is subject to a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses, rejecting claims that the facilities aren’t actually gyms.
Oral arguments took place via video conference Thursday morning in light of the pandemic. Gold’s Gym franchise owner Merrill C. “Sandy” Hall is represented by state Senators Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, and Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.
Hall’s locations across the state have been shut down since late March under Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order closing down nonessential businesses. The governor extended his order on April 15 to last until May 7.
The two legislators and lawyers, whose live feed from rural Culpeper County appeared pixelated as a downpour washed over most of the state, argued the shutdown order did not apply to Hall’s Gold’s Gym locations because they are not gyms but are instead health centers as regulated under state law, which were omitted from the list.
The Gold’s Gym facilities are also exempt from the order, they argued, because they are private health clubs, despite Northam’s order specifying both public and private businesses must close. Hall’s lawsuit was filed last week in Culpeper County Circuit Court.
“There’s a difference between public and private clubs,” Stanley said. “There’s a difference between health clubs and fitness centers.”
But Circuit Court Judge Claude V. Worrell shot down this theory and sided with the governor in a ruling from the bench.
“It seems to specifically describe everyone’s common understanding of what a gym is,” he said about the exercise equipment and other services provided at Hall’s locations.
Worrell said that because “it meets that meaning” in the executive order, Gold’s Gym is covered by the shutdown decree.
The judge also sided with Northam on the broader question about his power to shut down nonessential businesses during the Covid-19 crisis.
“The governor’s judgement is what controls here,” he said. “You can’t say [Hall’s] rights outweigh everyone else’s rights to remain free of disease.”
During the hearing, the senators, who referred to the spread of Covid-19 as “speculative” despite the state’s infection rate and death toll continuing to rise, also argued Northam did not follow procedure in issuing his order when he failed to incorporate steps by the state’s health commissioner required under state law.
Worrell, however, asked if the language in the state code laying out the breadth of gubernatorial power during a state of emergency was being read correctly by the plaintiff.
“Isn’t the governor allowed to include any particular language he chooses regarding how to quarantine or otherwise isolate individuals… doesn’t that seem to give the executive the power to make orders regarding isolation?” the judge asked.
“Certainly there is the authority for any governor to make such an order, but there does not exist an order for isolation,” McDougle replied. “The health commissioner has to do any number of things to make the declaration.”
But Solicitor General Toby Heytens, representing Northam, pushed back on all fronts and stressed the dire nature of the coronavirus outbreak and the role the governor plays in keeping citizens safe.
“My friend’s argument isn’t simply that the governor can’t close their businesses, their argument is even during a highly contagious global pandemic, the governor can’t order the closure of any business,” Heytens said. “Both emergency law and other sources of authority give the governor the authority he’s done here to prevent harm and preserve lives.”
He also addressed the claim that the Gold’s Gym locations are private health clubs.
“Under the plain, everyday meaning of the word fitness center and gym, Gold’s Gym counts under the rule,” Heytens said. “Their gyms, like every other fitness center I’ve ever heard of, uses a similar model.”
After the hearing, Northam’s office said he was pleased that Worrell “sided with the law, science, and public health.”
“The governor’s priority is and will continue to be protecting the safety of Virginians,” spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in an email.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, echoed Northam’s praise for Worrell’s ruling, but also expressed understanding for the issues faced by Hall and other business owners.
“While I understand there are many hardships that come with these critical safety measures,” Herring said in a statement, “we must remember that we are all working together to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe and healthy.”
In a statement after the ruling, Stanley said Hall plans to appeal Worrell’s decision.
“Were this decision permitted to go unchallenged, Virginia’s governor would have powers to impose criminal penalties capriciously at will,” the senator said. “That contradicts the Constitution of Virginia and, in this circumstance, clearly violates the code.”
Gold’s Gym President & CEO Adam Zeitsiff described Hall in an email as an independent owner of franchises and said his lawsuit was not discussed with the corporate office.
A statement on the company’s corporate website stresses it is complying with direction from government and public health officials, which means “all of our company-owned gyms as well as most of our locally-owned franchise gyms are temporarily closed.”
Richard Schragger, the Perre Bowen Professor of law at University of Virginia’s School of Law, predicted the case’s outcome in a phone interview ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
“The code is pretty broad… but that’s on purpose,” he said. “The government has a great deal of latitude, especially the executive, when faced with a disaster of this kind.”
Schragger said the courts are often hesitant to limit gubernatorial authority during times of crisis for that exact reason, and it comes from the understanding, long enshrined in state law, that an executive has to move quickly in times of dire need.
“Calling out the National Guard or implementing the department of health, executive authority is thought to be exactly what you need it to do,” he said.
Schragger also noted the judiciary can and should play a role if civil liberties are being trampled, “but when there’s a crisis like this one they have to move quickly to address it.”