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Court spots Ohio gyms from bench

Health department ruled to have exceeded authority in closing fitness facilities

A Lake County judge ruled that the Ohio Department of Health and its director, Dr. Amy Acton, exceeded their authority when ordering gyms and fitness centers to close as part of an effort to slow down the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Eugene Lucci of Lake County Common Pleas Court granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking the state from taking action against gyms that reopened as well as prohibiting the state from imposing penalties for noncompliance of Acton’s order if the businesses follow safety requirements.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a libertarian-leaning legal organization, filed the lawsuit on behalf of 35 independently owned gyms — including Team BSS in Boardman — contending the order for the businesses to be closed was unconstitutional.

The ruling allows the facilities to open immediately if they follow safety protocols. The state had lifted a restriction on gyms and fitness facilities, allowing them to open Tuesday.

In his ruling, Lucci wrote: “The general public would be harmed if an injunction was not granted. There would be a diminishment of public morale and a feeling that one unelected individual could exercise such unfettered power to force everyone to obey impermissibly oppressive, vague, arbitrary and unreasonable rules that the director devised and revised, and modified and reversed, whenever and as she pleases, without any legislative guidance. The public would be left with feelings that their government is not accountable to them.”

In a statement, Maurice Thompson, 1851’s executive director, said, “Constitutions are written to prevent governments from arbitrarily interfering in citizens’ lives and business. On that front, the call to action is clear: the governor and health director may no longer impose their closures and regulations and write their own criminal penalties to enforce those regulations and closures.”

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine, said, “The ruling affirms that facilities must follow Ohio Department of Health safety protocols to keep patrons and all Ohioans safe and healthy. These facilities were due to open Tuesday anyway. However, our office disagrees with the ruling’s analysis of the law.”

He said the governor’s office is reviewing the ruling with the attorney general to determine the next steps.

SENATE REJECTS BILL

Also Wednesday, the Ohio Senate failed to support changes to a bill, approved May 6 by the House, that, in part, requires new health department orders to be in effect for no more than 14 days. To be extended, the order would have to get approval from a 10-member joint House-Senate committee.

No Senate member voted in favor of the proposal, which failed 32-0.

The legislation was approved along party lines in the House with all but two Republicans backing it, and was an effort to limit Acton’s power during situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeWine, also a Republican, had vowed to veto the bill if it passed.

Last week, DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted announced a series of reopening dates for several remaining businesses closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Child care facilities and day camps can reopen May 31 while swimming pools, bureaus of motor vehicles, and amateur noncontact or limited-contact sports facilities can reopen May 26 with proper safety protocols.

Restaurants and bars can reopen indoor service today. They were permitted to open outdoor service on Friday, with DeWine acknowledging earlier this week that some problems arose with businesses violating the safety regulations. He put together what he called “a large contingent of law enforcement and health officials from across state agencies and from our local communities” to do compliance checks in crowded bars and restaurants.

Mahoning County is putting together a task force that starts Friday and will last at least through the Memorial Day weekend but could exist for a few more weeks. Trumbull County wasn’t chosen as a district to create a task force.

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