U.S. Appeals Court keeps Michigan gyms closed with emergency stay

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A three-judge 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel intervened Wednesday night to keep indoor gyms in Michigan closed hours before they were scheduled to reopen under a lower court's order.

Agreeing with a request from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration, the panel issued an emergency stay, pausing an injunction from U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney that would have allowed the gyms to open at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

The stay suspends the reopening as Whitmer continues to appeal the matter.

Gov. Whitmer provides an update on COVID-19 in Michigan in May.

"We sympathize deeply with the business owners and their patrons affected by the governor’s order," the three-judge panel's order said. "Crises like COVID-19 can call for quick, decisive measures to save lives. Yet those measures can have extreme costs — costs that often are not borne evenly.

"The decision to impose those costs rests with the political branches of government, in this case, Gov. Whitmer."

On Friday, Maloney issued his injunction that allowed gyms in much of Michigan to reopen on Thursday. Gyms in northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula already are open.

Maloney, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, granted a preliminary injunction at the request of the League of Independent Fitness Facilities and Trainers Inc. and a group of 22 companies operating gyms here.

"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," Maloney said in his decision.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals panel disagreed, saying that Whitmer's administration had offered rationales for keeping gyms closed.

"Shaping the precise contours of public health measures entails some difficult line-drawing," the panel's order said. "Our Constitution wisely leaves that task to officials directly accountable to the people."

The three Appeals Court judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents. Judges Julia Smith Gibbons and Deborah L. Cook were appointed by former President George W. Bush. Judge Chad Readler was appointed by President Donald Trump.

Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the judges "got it right."

"In the fight against a global pandemic, courts must give governors broad latitude to make quick, difficult decisions," Brown said. "The governor will continue to take the actions necessary to save lives."

But Carly Van Thomme, an attorney for the gyms in the case, argued that her clients would be harmed if the reopening was delayed. The gyms already have been closed for 14 weeks, Van Thomme said in opposing the emergency stay.

Van Thomme labeled the governor’s executive orders "nothing but an arbitrary and irrational patchwork of regional carve-outs."

The Court of Appeals panel acknowledged in its filing that the gyms faced the "very real risk of losing their businesses." The governor’s interest in combating COVID-19 is "at least equally significant."

"To date, the disease has infected thousands of Michiganders, and it has shown the potential to infect many more," the panel wrote. "That the public interest weighs in favor of a stay is apparent for the same reason."

As of Wednesday, the state had confirmed 61,953 cases of COVID-19 and 5,868 deaths linked to the virus.