PROVIDENCE — A Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday against The Maxx Fitness Clubzz in Lincoln, R.I., and Warren, R.I., ordering them to close temporarily and saying the governor and state health director have the authority to take action to protect the public’s health during the coronavirus emergency.
It was the first time the state has taken a business to court in order to force them to comply with an emergency order.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo had ordered all gyms, fitness clubs, and other entertainment venues to close for two weeks, starting Nov. 30, to help the state get a handle on the staggering spread of the coronavirus. The Health Department cited studies that found gyms and fitness clubs carried a higher risk of spreading COVID-19.
But Matthew D’Amico, the owner of The Maxx Fitness Clubzz, kept his businesses open, saying he was already following other precautions and that the two-week closure would be financially devastating. The Health Department issued $500 fines and immediate compliance orders on Dec. 1, then asked the court for a temporary restraining order and injunction.
D’Amico’s lawyer, Charles Calenda, a Republican candidate for attorney general in 2022, disputed a study about the health risks and argued that the governor’s executive order violated the Rhode Island Constitution.
Judge Melissa Long disagreed. She pointed to the actions allowed to the governor under the emergency management act.
And, the judge said, the governor had in mind the greater good for the public.
“It goes without saying that I recognize this is difficult for Mr. D’Amico. The court recognizes (the closure) is a hardship,” Long said. “But nevertheless, the hardship to the Department of Health and, more importantly, the public interest in staying healthy and safe in a pandemic, is what the court must weigh.”
A few hours before the judge’s decision, the state Department of Health had recorded another record high number of COVID-19 infections: 1,326 new positive cases, a 9.2 percent positive rate, and 13 more deaths.
Hospitals reached capacity on Nov. 30, and the state opened two field hospitals earlier this week to handle the overflow of patients suffering from COVID-19. By Friday, 408 people were hospitalized.
“These are very, very unusual times. We are, in fact, in an emergency situation that has been going on since March,” Morgan Goulet, lawyer for the state Health Department, told the judge during Friday’s hearing. “Our hospitals are full, our health system is crashing, our number of infected persons is skyrocketing, we had to open two field hospitals — something was required to be done in this emergency. That change for two weeks was (aimed) at getting us back and trying to actually ease the burden on the people in the state of Rhode Island.”
Goulet argued that the state emergency management act gives the governor powers to take action to reduce the vulnerability of residents and loss of life. That was the reason behind the two-week pause, he said.
Another another business was now also refusing to close, Goulet said. The state feared allowing D’Amico to openly defy the order would cause a “domino effect” of other businesses ignoring health restrictions, Goulet said.
“If right now there is no preservation of this adherence to order, we are going to have an onslaught of people who are going to challenge executive orders, and it will lead to lack of confidence and will worsen the pandemic,” he said. “What’s getting us through pandemic is adherence to statutes and guidance.”
After the judge announced her decision, the lawyer for The Maxx Fitness Clubzz said the two clubs would be closed by the end of the day Friday.