OLYMPIA — Two gyms that had remained open despite the state’s stay-home directive — one in Arlington, one in Puyallup — agreed to close Tuesday night after Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed consumer protection lawsuits against them.
The suits, filed Monday in Pierce and Snohomish counties, argued that by flouting the governor’s orders, the gyms have been endangering lives and gaining an unfair advantage over competitors that closed, Ferguson said in a statement early Tuesday.
The business owners — Michael J. Baker and Shane D. Cowhig of Fitness 101 Team Puyallup, more commonly known as Northwest Fitness Co., and Michael and Richard Jellison of Power Alley Fitness, more commonly known as PA Fitness, in Arlington — received multiple warnings that remaining open threatens public health, the statement said.
On Friday, both sets of owners received cease-and-desist letters as final warnings to stop operating within 48 hours or face a lawsuit.
They were still open as of Tuesday, but late in the day, lawyers for both gyms told Ferguson’s office they would close that night.
Mike Jellison, who co-owns PA Fitness in Arlington with his brother, said Tuesday that it’s been a struggle to stay open but they believe it’s the right thing to do for their clients.
“This is our Constitution. This is our rights,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Jellison said the gym has adopted CDC guidelines and is cleaning hourly, giving each client their own bottle of disinfectant and checking people’s temperatures with an infrared thermometer, among other measures.
“We’re not making money,” he said. “We just want to get to the end of the race.”
He said his gym will join other fitness facility owners and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman in suing Ferguson later this week. PA Fitness’ website indicated as of Tuesday morning that the gym was raising money for its legal costs.
Northwest Fitness Co. in Puyallup did not respond to phone calls. Its website says the gym isn’t open for business, just for members who want to “exercise (their) rights to protest,” and that it won’t take phone calls during this time.
Ferguson’s letter informed both businesses that, if they didn’t close, the state would seek monetary penalties as well as the costs and fees of bringing the legal actions. A court can impose monetary penalties of up to $2,000 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
Ferguson’s office will work with attorneys to resolve the lawsuits “in a way that they do not have to pay monetary penalties, so long as they are complying with the law,” said Brionna Aho, spokesperson for the attorney general.
“We understand the financial impact of Stay Home, Stay Healthy on small businesses, but that does not exempt you from the requirement to remain closed,” the letters read. “ ... The COVID-19 virus spreads easily from person to person and the only way to control it, and save lives, is to maintain social distancing, including closing nonessential businesses. By keeping your business open, you are endangering the lives of your customers and your community.”
“It is also unfair to your competitors for you to be open for business while they are complying with the Proclamation and making sacrifices for the benefit of the community,” Ferguson’s letters continues. “... In order to level the playing field and ensure the market is fair for all, you must close your doors.”
On Tuesday morning, PA Fitness — located in a long row of shops including a quilt store and a pottery studio — had its front door wide open.
Front-desk staffer Katie Henkle wore a mask as she checked members’ temperatures with a handheld thermometer.
“Hospital-grade,” she said.
The gym opened last Monday, and people started showing up immediately, she said. Rates posted on the window ranged from $15 a day to $50 a month.
“It’s amazing seeing everyone come in and come together,” Henkle said “We’ve had some membership cancellations, but it’s been pretty mellow. Everyone is just excited to be working out again.”
A man who gave his name only as “J.R.” said he first came to the gym last week, when a friend told him it was open.
“It’s good to get back to normal,” he said as he headed out to his truck. “There is no ‘new normal.’ Inslee and the rest of his followers can take that B.S. and shove it.”
A woman named Brooke didn’t want to give her last name because she is a flight attendant for a major airline and didn’t want any trouble at work — although she hasn’t been in the air for a while.
“Right now, work is a little slow, so I’m trying to fill the time,” she said, when asked why she came. “It feels so good to get out of the house.”
And it’s nice to get out from under the stay-home order, she said.
“I feel this is hurting out economy more than anything,” she said. “If people take the precautions, they should be allowed to do what they want to do.”
The attorney general’s lawsuits are civil actions and don’t prevent local prosecutors from bringing criminal charges, according to the attorney general’s office, which doesn’t have original criminal jurisdiction.
The city of Arlington sent a letter Thursday warning the PA Fitness owners that, because they’re operating unlawfully, the city has the right to revoke their business license, impose daily penalties, seek a court order to stop their operation, and refer the case for criminal prosecution, according to Ferguson’s office.
The gyms aren’t the only businesses that have been operating in violation of the state’s stay-home order.
The Stag Barber Shop in Snohomish gained attention after reopening weeks ago, and while it hasn’t drawn legal action from the attorney general, it was warned by the Snohomish Health District last Friday to stop seeing customers, the Everett Herald reported.
Also last Friday, the state Department of Licensing suspended Stag owner Bob Martin’s cosmetology operator license, which was valid through June 2021, and served him with a cease-and-desist order for doing business without a salon shop license, the Herald reported, adding that his license for the shop expired March 10, 2017.
If Martin refuses to comply, he could face fines and revocation of his barber and business licenses, and the attorney general’s office could consider whether the Stag is violating the Consumer Protection Act. But that would be a “last resort,” according to guidelines released by the governor’s office.