Mountainside Fitness Can't Legally Defy Shutdown Order, Judge Says

Mountainside Fitness Can't Legally Defy Shutdown Order, Judge Says
Mountainside Fitness
A judge has denied a request for an injunction of Governor Doug Ducey's executive order closing businesses like bars and gyms due to COVID-19, dealing a setback to the gym chain that's suing Ducey over his mandate.

Last week, Tom Hatten, the CEO of the local gym chain Mountainside Fitness, announced that the company had filed a lawsuit against the governor over the shutdown order, seeking an injunction against the order and arguing that it violates the state constitution. The filing also argued that Mountainside Fitness had already been following federal public health guidelines for gyms.

But the ruling, which was authored by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason and released on July 7, casts substantial doubt over the strength of the gym's arguments, shooting down its three central legal claims and asserting that the government has "the weight of the law on its side."

On the allegation that Ducey's order denied gyms procedural due process, the judge argued that the constitution "does not prevent the government from taking necessary actions during public health emergencies" and that the mandate gives businesses an avenue to petition for reopening by July 27. Thomason did note that he was concerned that this process hasn't been better defined.

Mountainside Fitness' claim that the state lacked a rational basis for closing gyms was also decisively shot down by Thomason. He pointed to medical opinions from health officials submitted by the governor's counsel arguing that, given the current understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted between people, gyms pose a significant risk to public health as vectors of the disease.

"[Physicians] believe that indoor gyms and fitness centers present high risks of infection. Physical exercise is often not conducive to mask wearing. Exercising also results in respiratory droplet secretions that can be easily spread. Physical distancing can be difficult in gyms. The nature of indoor gyms makes management difficult due to use of multiple machines, moving around the facility, use of water fountains and use of locker rooms," Thomason's ruling states. "The medical professionals feel that, even if gyms follow all protocols, there is still an unacceptable risk of infection. Many fitness center members return to the center several times a week, increasing the risk of infection further."

"There is no dispute here that COVID-19 presents an emergency justifying governmental action," it adds.

The judge applied the same logic to Mountainside Fitness' third claim that the executive order arbitrarily closed gyms and not other businesses, again stating there was a "rational basis" to close indoor gyms.

Additionally, while the judge acknowledged the financial hardship that Mountainside Fitness and other gyms will likely face due to the shutdown, he also pointed to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and its threat to society.

"We elect people, however, to deal with emergency situations such as this one. People in high office must be given wide latitude in their decision making in emergency situations," the ruling states. "The public has a very strong interest in dealing with public health concerns like this one. The hardships could become even more immense if the spread of the virus is not curtailed."

Jennifer Parks-Sturgeon, a spokeswoman for Hatten, did not respond to New Times' request for comment on the ruling.

UPDATE: Patrick Ptak of Governor Ducey's office released a statement: "This was the outcome we expected. This issue is about protecting public health and containing the spread of COVID-19. While none of these decisions are easy, we appreciate the sacrifices that are being made in the interest of public health. Businesses need to comply with the public health orders and we ask all individuals continue to make smart decisions, wear a mask, and stay home as much as possible."

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Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety