ROCKINGHAM — With Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order keeping gyms and fitness centers closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, all but one in Richmond County has played by the rules.
Those that have recently received a shoutout from Rockingham’s top cop.
Police Chief Billy Kelly issued a statement on social media late Thursday night thanking the gyms that have yet to open their doors.
“I would like to take this time to thank Rockingham Fitness, Freedom Fitness and other area gyms that have abided by the Governor’s Executive order to remain closed during this pandemic,” Kelly said in a statement posted to the department’s Facebook page. “I understand the hardship and sacrifice that you, your families and employees have made to keep our community safe during this troublesome time. By working together our common goal is to get through this pandemic safely. My hat is off to you and thank you for your understanding and support.”
Those businesses have been closed since the governor issued Executive Order No. 120 on March 23.
Blake Altman, owner of Evolution Health Club, re-opened at his new location last Thursday and the following day was cited with a misdemeanor for being in “violation of Emergency prohibitions and restrictions,” which is subject to a $1,000 fine.
“I will die before I close my doors,” Altman told the RO.
Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 712, currently pending in the General Assembly, that would cap the penalty and fine of what McInnis called “such frivolous law enforcement action.”
The bill reduces fines to a maximum $25 for the first offense and $1 per day for each subsequent violation.
It also prohibits occupational licensing boards from taking adverse actions – including revoking licenses and levying fines – against any license holder for violating Executive Orders 118, 120, 121, 131 and 135 and any executive order issued after April 23 in response to the COVID-19 emergency.
The bill was filed May 5 and has been in the Senate Rules Committee since May 7 since passing its first reading.
Rockingham Fitness announced on its newly created Facebook page June 2 that it had planned to open Thursday morning at 5 a.m., offering free membership for the month of June and asking members to bring their own personal protective equipment.
However, the gym backtracked.
“After a lengthy conversation with the Rockingham Chief of Police, Billy Kelly, who explained to us that gyms in NC are still not allowed to open due to Covid19, and our own research, we have decided to follow the rules and postpone the reopening for the moment,” the updated post read. “This is being done for the safety of our members. We want to comply with state ordinances and keep our members safe.
The Carolina Journal reported last month that other states had started letting gyms open and, at the time, it was hoped they would be included in Phase 2.
However, when Cooper announced the second of his three-phase plan, gyms were not included.
Last week, a coalition of owners of health clubs, gyms, spas and karate dojos filed a lawsuit against Cooper’s order, the Carolina Journal reported.
“It’s either go under or play by this governor’s rules at this point,” Altman said. “I played along with the rules, then I saw this last phase — you can get a tattoo, you can get a manicure, you can swim in a public pool, you can lay in a tanning bed, you can go to Myrtle Beach. You can do everything, but don’t go in a bar and don’t go in a gym.
“It’s discrimination against businesses at this point,” he added.
Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen have repeatedly cited concerns that fitness centers are at higher risk of spreading COVID-19 among members, the CJ reported.
Steve Pinkerton, a Concord businessman who owns Vitality Fitness, told the CJ that he paid to have his facility cleaned and disinfected every week and planned one-on-one workouts where trainers and clients would stand six feet apart.
“It’s one of the safest, cleanest places you can have,” he told CJ in April.
Rockingham bar owner Richard Robinson, whose establishment, Double Vision, has also been closed more than two months by executive order, said something similar about Altman’s gym.
“I feel I would catch the virus at a drive-thru before I caught it in that gym,” he said during an interview.
Robinson, who was one of several people to show up in support of Altman last Friday, says he thinks people should be able to make their own choices if they want to take the risk of contracting COVID-19 or not.
“If they want to go to the gym, let them go to the gym. If they want to go to the bar, let them go to the bar.”
Despite the pending lawsuit and criticism from Republican leaders, Cooper still isn’t changing his position.
During a press conference Thursday, Associated Press reporter Gary Roberston asked Cooper about a bill on his desk that would allow bars to open outside seating and the possibility of a bill that would allow gyms to open back.
“I have concerns about both of those bills,” Cooper said, “because they take away flexibility during the time of emergency.
“We’ve said all along that we really want to boost the economy and to ease restrictions at the right time,” the governor continued. “And we’re looking at this data … and making decisions.”
In Phase 2, restaurants and personal care services have been allowed to open with restrictions.
However, Cooper said that there is a possibility of a Phase 2.5, before Phase 3 goes into effect, where gyms and bars may be allowed to open “or look at some of these addtional items that might boost our economy, but that we would feel safe about not boosting the number of COVID-19 cases enough to overwhelm our hospitals.”
According to an update from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday, there are 659 coronavirus patients hospitalized, including four in Richmond County.
DHHS reports that, with 85% of the state’s hospitals reporting, there is a 21% availability in inpatient hospital beds and 15% availability in ICU beds, as well as 74% availability in ventilators.
The state has signed a lease with FirstHealth of the Carolinas to use the former Sandhills Regional Medical Center to handle an overflow of patients not infected with the coronavirus, should the need arise.
“The real problem with this legislation is that if, for example, we do have a surge in beds, then the authority of the executive branch is taken away to be able to close those again in order to protect the health and safety of the public,” Cooper continued. “And the General Assembly would have to go back in and pass a law. That defeats the purpose of the emergency act, allowing the executive branch to take specific action in an emergency and it removes the flexibility.
Cooper added that it also hampers the ability of local governments to make those decisions “to protect the health and safety of the people.”
“So, although these things may be good to do at some point in the near future,” Cooper said, “this legislation is not the right way to go about it.”