In a last-minute decision, three judges supported Gov. Whitmer’s order to postpone the reopening of gyms as Michigan sees new spikes in coronavirus cases.
MICHIGAN — Gyms are not ready to safely reopen in Michigan. That’s the eleventh-hour ruling of three Republican-appointed judges of a federal appeals court.
The new ruling keeps closed gyms and fitness centers that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered shut months ago to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The unanimous decision reached by two Bush-appointed judges and one Donald Trump-appointee granted an emergency stay sought by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to continue preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Her order, they said, “even if imperfect,” passes muster under a “rational basis” test used to weigh its constitutionality, said Judges Julia Smith Gibbons, Deborah Cook, and Chad Readler.
A rational basis test requires a law to express a legitimate state interest and show that the policy is rationally connected to that interest.
The Rational Basis for Keeping Gyms Closed
“Shaping the precise contours of public health measures entails some difficult line-drawing,” the judges wrote. “Our Constitution wisely leaves that task to officials directly accountable to the people.”
They said while the gym owners who sued bear the very real risk of losing their businesses, the governor’s interest in combating the coronavirus “is at least equally significant.”
“To date, the disease has infected thousands of Michiganders, and it has shown the potential to infect many more. That the public interest weighs in favor of a stay is apparent for the same reason,” they wrote.
After the lawsuit Independent Fitness Facilities v. Whitmer was filed by indoor fitness facilities, District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo ruled that gyms could reopen at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. The reversal from the appeals court came at the eleventh hour, blocking Maloney’s ruling.
The Tough Spot Gyms Are In
Danny Roth, co-founder and -owner of Blue Lion Fitness in Ann Arbor, was still questioning the safety of reopening gym facilities when he spoke to The ‘Gander.
“We’re in a tough spot,” Roth said. “We support the State of Michigan, but we’re also a business that has gone over 100 days without being able to make money. As much as we wish that we could wait for this whole thing to pass and completely clear, there is a demand to get back to things and there is a demand to get life going again.”
Whitmer has planned to let gyms, movie theaters, and places like bowling alleys — which closed March 16 — reopen in much of Michigan by July 4 if COVID-19 case trends remain favorable. She will not make an announcement this week, though, after citing concerns about some outbreaks. In the less-populous northern part of the state, gyms and fitness centers got the green light on June 10 if they reduced class sizes and made other changes.
“Today three Republican-appointed judges got it right: In the fight against a global pandemic, courts must give governors broad latitude to make quick, difficult decisions,” said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. “The governor will continue to take the actions necessary to save lives.”
Whitmer Has the Authority to Close Gyms
Both courts agreed that Whitmer had the authority to close down sectors of the economy for public health reasons, but they differed on the determination of fitness centers being a high-risk category for the virus. The appellate court cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that exercise activity increases respiratory response and therefore increases risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The appeals court also chastised the district court for overturning Whitmer’s order even absent the CDC’s guidance.
“Enjoining the actions of elected state officials, especially in a situation where an infectious disease can and has spread rapidly, causes irreparable harm,” the ruling read. “Whether the Governor’s Order is ‘unsupported by evidence or empirical data’ in the record does not undermine her decision, at least as a legal matter.”
As for Blue Lion, Roth made his stance clear — public health comes first.
“We want what’s best for the state, and if she [Gov. Whitmer] says to us, ‘Hey, you gotta close down,’ we’ll close down.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.