Ohio gyms reopen after winning legal battle against state closure orders

Fitness centers were initially scheduled to reopen Tuesday.

May 21, 2020, 5:01 PM

It only took a few hours for the first clients to arrive after Pinnacle Performance in Columbus, Ohio, reopened its doors Wednesday.

"We have a lot of professional athletes who use our facility," majority owner Tim Cassell told ABC News. "They needed a full facility to work out in, versus a garage."

On Wednesday, a Northeast Ohio judge ruled that the state's order closing Ohio gyms and other fitness facilities during the coronavirus pandemic violated the Ohio Constitution. The ruling marked the first successful attempt to limit Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton's authority.

Gyms and fitness centers have been closed since March 22 under Acton's stay-at-home order. They were set to reopen on Tuesday as part of the state's phased reopening plan.

"It's an extra six days of operation that we didn't have before," Cassell said. "I got $250,000 worth of equipment sitting out there collecting dust. … Every day means dollars, especially when you got none."

PHOTO: Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health Director, center, discusses the confirmation of Ohio's first three cases of coronavirus.
Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health Director, center, discusses the confirmation of Ohio's first three cases of coronavirus, as Gov. Mike DeWine, right, studies an update on the cases provided to him during a news conference, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio.
Andrew Welsh-huggins/AP Photo

Cassell assisted legal counsel in organizing gyms in the suit, which represented 35 independent gyms statewide, and filed an affidavit. The suit alleged that the health department's authority is "too broad."

In a statement, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, one of the litigators in the case, said that "property rights are fundamental rights in Ohio," and that the Ohio health department "has both violated those rights and exceeded its own authority" in closing all businesses.

In his ruling, Lake County Common Pleas Judge Eugene Lucci wrote that Acton has "no statutory authority to close all businesses" and that she has acted in an "impermissibly arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive manner." Lucci ordered that gyms could reopen immediately, as long as they followed safety regulations.

In a statement, Gov. Mike DeWine said that his office "disagrees with the ruling's analysis of law," but noted that it "affirms that facilities must follow Ohio Department of Health safety protocols to keep patrons and all Ohioans safe and healthy."

PHOTO: A woman cleans and disinfecting equipment in gym without people in this undated stock photo.
A woman cleans and disinfecting equipment in gym without people in this undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Those protocols include limited capacity in facilities, mandatory hand-washing and client checks-ins upon arrival, face mask requirements for employees, social distancing of six feet and routine disinfection of high-contact surfaces and equipment. Temperature screenings of employees and clients are recommended.

Cassell, who was part of a task force that made the guidelines, had stocked up on hand sanitizer and face masks and moved equipment to allow for social distancing ahead of the ruling.

"We were able to go ahead and open, we were ready," he said. "We want our clients to feel safe, and we want them to be in a safe environment."

Pinnacle will limit its capacity to 12 people and do the recommended temperature checks, Cassell said. The gym has a key fob entry system, which will help track clients should they need to do contact tracing.

"We'd know when our clients are here, what time they came, what time they left," Cassell said. "We know who's coming and going."

The suit is one of several recent challenges to the health director's authority. Earlier this month, the Ohio House passed an amendment that would limit an order from the health department to 14 days. On Wednesday, the Ohio Senate rejected the bill unanimously, sending it to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members for revision. DeWine has said he would veto the bill if it gets to his desk.

Since the beginning of May, offices, construction and manufacturers are among the first services to reopen . Last week, retailers, hair salons, barber shops, day spas, nail salons and tanning facilities reopened. Bars and restaurants were also allowed to resume outdoor service last week that extended to dine-in service.

Still to come: Pools, bowling alleys, batting cages and miniature golf can reopen on Tuesday, and childcare providers on May 31. Schools, museums, movie theaters and stadiums remain closed.

State officials said about 95% of the Ohio economy wil open by the end of the month. Reopened businesses must follow social-distancing and safety guidelines, and employees must wear face masks.

On Wednesday, Acton issued a new health order that also lifted stay-at-home requirements, which were in effect through May 29. Mass gatherings are still limited to 10 people.

Ohio has 30,167 confirmed cases as of Thursday, up 731 from the day before. The jump is higher than the 21-day case average of 578. There have been 1,836 reported fatalities, up 55 from the day before.