Culpeper judge rejects gym’s challenge to shut-down order

Virginia State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, right, records a vote during the reconvene session to order at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/POOL/Steve Helber)

Attorneys for a Gold’s Gym franchisee in Virginia argued that COVID-19 hasn’t been that bad as they tried to convince a judge on Thursday to overturn an executive order closing fitness centers and other businesses.

“Hospital bed availability is not an issue, we’re not suffering the kinds of calamities that the sky is falling,” said Bill Stanley, a Republican state senator who represented the gym in the case with fellow GOP Sen. Ryan McDougle. They said that the economic damage caused by forcing the gyms to close outweighed what Stanley described as “the speculative threat of COVID.”

Judge Claude Worrell, who heard the case electronically from Culpeper Circuit Court, rejected the argument and refused to issue an injunction, telling the plaintiffs he thought they were unlikely to succeed at trial. Further, he said the gym’s owner, Merill C. “Sandy” Hall, couldn’t begin to compensate the public for potential damages were it to contribute to the spread of the disease.

“God forbid if anyone became ill, what would the cost be? And what would Mr. Hall’s responsibility in order to pay for and defray some of the risk that we would be taking in allowing him to reopen?” Worrell asked. “Is 100 million sufficient for Mr. Hall to post bond in this matter?  A billion? Is that too much just to cover Culpeper?”

Worrell also rejected arguments that Northam exceeded his authority with the order. Stanley had told the judge Northam was using the order as if it said “he has super powers, he can wear a cape, he can fly and stop crime.”

Worrell said the legislation empowering Northam to act in such an emergency is broad to the point where the courts can only intervene in cases when they believe the governor is “plainly wrong, acting in bad faith or the governor has violated the constitutional rights of an individual or individuals.”

Finally, the plaintiffs also argued that the gym was not in fact a gym under state law and was instead a private health club. Worrell called it “an interesting argument” but said that the word gym was in the name of the business and it clearly “meets the common understanding of what a gym is.”

Attorney General Mark Herring’s office represented Northam in the lawsuit.

“I’m really glad we were able to again successfully defend Governor Northam’s Executive Orders,” Herring said in a statement. “Social distancing continues to be the most important thing we can do to keep our communities safe, keep Virginians healthy and prevent the spread of COVID-19. 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.”

Stanley and McDougle said they plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Virginia. “Mr. Hall’s businesses and livelihood, and the health and wellbeing of his members, are being negatively affected by this governor’s Executive Order, which imposes criminal penalties in defiance of the law,” they said in a statement. “Appealing this decision is necessary and essential, not only to protect Mr. Hall’s rights, but the rights of all Virginians.”