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Judge Tosses Gold's Gym Lawsuit To Reopen Amid Forced Closures

Gym machines in front of mirror
Earlier this year Governor Northam ordered most recreational businesses to close in an effort to combat the coronavirus.

A Culpeper judge threw out a lawsuit Thursday, filed by a Virginia gym owner who says Gov. Ralph Northam didn’t have the authority to close non-essential businesses, including fitness centers, during the coronavirus outbreak.

Executive Order 53shuttered restaurant dining rooms and many recreational businesses until May 8.

Northam unveiled a blueprint for reopening the state, which includes a 14-day downward trend in confirmed cases before public health restrictions can be lifted.

Merill “Sandy” Hall owns several Gold’s Gym facilities in Virginia that have been forced to close as a result of those restrictions. 

Hall is represented by two Republican state senators, Ryan McDougle and Bill Stanley. “This blueprint for reopening Virginia ensures and guarantees the closing of Mr. Hall’s businesses forever,” Stanley said. “And the closing of business is irreparable harm.”

The attorneys tried to make a case that Gold’s Gym isn’t a gym at all, but a health club, critical to public health and therefore exempt from the governor’s order. 

They also argued that the risks of contracting COVID-19 have been overblown. Stanley made the argument that while more than a million people in the U.S. have become infected by COVID-19, that includes only .174% of Virginia’s population. 

“There is no scientific proof that a private health club is any more of a place to transmit COVID as a Kroger or a Safeway or a Giant or a Home Depot,” Stanley said. 

Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytons represented Northam in the case. He said COVID-19 remains a very real threat. 

“The fact that the worst fears have not yet materialized is a direct result of the very measures the petitioners are asking this court to loosen,” Heytons argued before Culpeper Circuit Court Judge Claude Worrell.  

Worrell took five minutes before coming back with a ruling that the governor’s order is constitutional and that it would not be in the public’s interest to allow him to reopen. 

“It’s not an appropriate argument it seems to me to suggest that since everybody else is violating the rules, why don’t I get to too,” Worrell said. 

Worrell said he does not take likely the possibility that Hall could lose his businesses as a result of the governor’s order or his own ruling. 

“The fact that the folks at Lowe's, other stores where people have made a point of showing that they are packed and people are violating the governor’s rules doesn’t seem to suggest to me that the governor is wrong,” Worrell said. “It’s just that people are unlawful.”

CORRECTION: Culpeper was misspelled in the first sentence of this story. It has been corrected.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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