Federal judge orders Michigan gyms reopened June 25; Whitmer to appeal

Beth LeBlanc Sam Jones
The Detroit News

A federal judge ruled Friday that Michigan's indoor gyms can reopen on June 25 in spite of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order keeping them closed. 

Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney granted a preliminary injunction that halted the executive orders requiring the closure of the facilities at the request of the League of Independent Fitness Facilities and Trainers Inc. and a group of 22 companies operating gyms in Michigan. 

"Unfortunately, on the record before it, the court has not been presented with any evidence that shows a rational relation between the continued closure of indoor gyms and the preservation of public health," said Maloney, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Kenneth Martin of Madison Heights works out his triceps in March 2020 at The Royal Oak Gym.

The judge said gyms reopening June 25 must follow workplace safety standards laid out in Whitmer's executive orders. 

The Democratic governor plans to appeal the decision to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and "respectfully, but strongly, disagrees with this decision."

“With this ruling, the court is playing a dangerous role it should not play: second-guessing and upending the data-informed decisions that have saved thousands of lives in Michigan," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. "The idea that gyms — with their high levels of heavy respiratory activity, shared indoor spaces, and shared surfaces — might be one of the later businesses to come back online in the midst of this global pandemic is hardly surprising and highly sensible.”

The ruling comes during a week when a national nonprofit that's been monitoring the spread of COVID-19 said Michigan is one of three states "on track to contain" the novel coronavirus. COVID Act Now, a group of technologists, epidemiologists, health experts and public policy leaders, tweeted Tuesday that Michigan had moved to its lowest risk category on its warning dashboard for states.

"Cases are steadily decreasing and Michigan’s COVID preparedness meets or exceeds international standards across our key metrics," the site tweeted.

Ken Welch, owner of Pointe Fitness in Harper Woods, celebrated the decision Friday and planned to have his business ready for the June 25 opening. 

“Honestly, we could’ve opened a long time ago,” Welch said. “But it’s good to hear that we have a solid reopening date. My members know exactly what to do and how to stay safe when they’re here.” 

The news also was welcomed by Aimee Shortz, manager of Corner Studio in Grosse Pointe Woods, but she was wary about Whitmer's appeal.

"We are taking it day by day," Shortz said in an email. "We can’t wait to open our doors again, but the health of our clients and staff is most important."

Gym officials had argued in their suit against the state that the continued ban on fitness centers violates the businesses' rights to due process, equal protection and commerce law — violations they argued "do not survive even rational basis review."

They argued that gyms "are basically the only category of businesses that remain closed in Michigan" without the scientific data to support that closure. The fitness facilities argued against their closure while restaurants, hair salons, massage facilities, tattoo parlors and public swimming pools could reopen.

Maloney said he pressed the state for evidence, data or rationale to support gyms' continued closure but the Whitmer administration "vaguely stated that indoor gyms are a 'petri dish' of infection."

The state's answer comes as many gyms are facing insolvency and at least one had lost 100% of its revenue, the judge said.

"Faced with imminent harm, plaintiffs presented defendants with a simple question: why must we remain closed?" Maloney wrote. "Defendants answered with a blanket 'trust us' statement that is insufficient to uphold a no-longer-blanket rule."

Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley commended Maloney's decision, arguing many of the governor's orders were "arbitrary and extremely harmful."

"The court was not presented with any evidence that showed a rational relationship between continued closure and preservation of public health," Studley wrote on Twitter.

The preliminary injunction marks the second time in two days that Maloney has waded into the legal thicket surrounding Whitmer's emergency powers.

In a less interventionist move on Thursday, the judge asked the Michigan Supreme Court to clarify whether Whitmer has the authority to continue issuing or renewing executive orders under either of two state laws that govern her emergency powers. The request came on the same day that Whitmer extended Michigan's state of emergency through July 16.

Maloney's request stemmed from a federal lawsuit by a Grand Rapids medical center filed against Whitmer's order banning non-essential procedures, but the root questions he raised closely mirrored those argued by the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature.

The federal and state lawsuits are seeking answers to whether state law allowed for the governor's emergency powers to continue after April 30, even without legislative approvals, and whether the emergency laws giving Whitmer virtually limitless authority violate the separation of powers between the governor and Legislature in Michigan's Constitution.

In the medical center's case, Michigan's high court could ignore or rule on the two questions in Maloney's request. The state Supreme Court in a 4-3 vote had chosen not to expedite its review of the two issues raised by Legislature but instead let them go first to the Michigan Court of Appeals.