GREENSBORO — Discouragements keep piling up for gyms and fitness centers in North Carolina, which have been closed since March under the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
The latest blow came Friday, when Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation that would have allowed gyms to reopen at 50% capacity and required them to follow social-distancing and cleanliness rules.
Gym owners had expected to reopen in May when Phase Two of the state’s three-part reopening plan took effect.
Then they had the mat pulled out from under them.
“It went from a moment of absolute elation and just relief to anger and screaming,” said Laura Ellison, who operates a Title One Boxing Club franchise in Greensboro.
Maria Gonzalez, who operates ClubFitness, with 3,500 members, had been working hard to set safe protocols and train staff.
“We have been at the edge of ready to open, and then it’s kind of like being pulled back,” Gonzalez said. “Now we don’t know what to expect.”
Cooper and N.C. Secretary of Health Dr. Mandy Cohen have said those types of places can’t open because of a greater risk for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The governor is expected to make an announcement next week as to whether or not the state will enter Phase Three of reopening. Phase Three will lessen restrictions even further and allow most businesses to reopen.
Ellison said she feels that congregate living situations account for much of the increase of coronavirus cases in the state and that gyms are suffering as a result.
“I think we’re probably going to get unduly punished,” she said.
Ellison said she spent weeks stocking up on hand sanitizer and masks and cleaning and training staff in preparation to reopen. She estimates that her gym has lost about $70,000 since being ordered to close.
“I feel like if they were going to change that plan, they should have given us a hint so we would’ve been prepared for it to be different,” Ellison said.
A Facebook group called ReOpen NC’s Health Clubs started a month ago and had more than 7,600 members as of Friday afternoon. The group raised more than $20,000 in two days to retain an attorney for a group of gyms in the eastern part of the state to file a lawsuit against Cooper. Some gyms in the Triad later joined that lawsuit. A Wake County judge denied the group’s restraining order against the governor.
More than their bottom line is being affected, gym owners say. They say clients need them as much as they need their clients.
“The stay-home orders have affected the health of our community,” Gonzalez said. “Physical activity is down, food and alcohol consumption have increased. Depression is on the rise. Our immune systems are getting weaker.”
But a June 5 letter from Phillip Rubin of the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to the Wilmington law firm representing the plaintiff gym owners says Cooper’s executive order makes an exception for people who need a gym for medical purposes.
The letter states: “The governor interprets Executive Order No. 141 to allow the use of indoor gyms or fitness facilities when that use is prescribed by or directed by a medical professional.”
That could offer hope for people with underlying medical and physical challenges whose workouts are essential.
“I’ve noticed a decline since I have not been in the class,” said Kris Barr, a 55-year-old with Parkinson’s disease and dystonia, a disorder similar to Parkinson’s.
Barr was a participant in Title One’s Rock Steady. The low-level boxing class to strengthen muscles and improve the balance of people with Parkinson’s had just debuted when the shutdown came. Barr said the program uses the same punching bags and weights participants in more aggressive workouts use.
“Of course, I don’t have those at my house. The gym is definitely something that is needed,” Barr said.
Many gyms have turned to alternative ways to bring workouts to members.
“What we’ve done is offer Facebook Live classes,” said Julie Luther, who has operated PurEnergy Fitness for 43 years.
Luther said the virtual workouts haven’t been a big hit with many of her clients who are older.
Ellison said virtual classes have waned.
“The participation online has plummeted since the weather has gotten better. It’s just not a viable long-term solution,” she said.
She said clients need the personal attention a trainer can only provide in person.
Caroline Murray, a member of PurEnergy, said she appreciates the personal touch.
“Because I’m not a self-motivator, I need someone to work with to get me through any kind of physical routine,” Murray said.
And working out in person at a gym brings something extra that’s less measurable, something many are lacking while sheltering in place.
“People come here for the camaraderie,” Gonzalez said. “I know many people who live alone, and the only social interaction they have is coming to the gym.”
Jess Grassi said he was going to PurEnergy three days a week before the shutdown. At almost 90, he said he enjoys the gym for stretching and light weightlifting.
“I don’t really like going for walks because they are boring to me. But the classes, I look forward to that,” Grassi said.
With spring, gyms began holding outdoor classes one on one or in small groups.
“It’s always outdoors, whether at their house or parking lot or at a park,” Luther said.
Gonzalez said ClubFitness loans outdoor class participants cardio equipment that they can bring with them to avoid cross-contamination.
“Members are so ready to work out together,” she said.
Ellison has also held some outdoor cardio and kickboxing workouts; she worries that won’t last.
“Now it’s getting super hot. I don’t want people doing hard cardio workout in the heat and humidity,” she said.
Luther has kept her workouts to early morning but also worries about the heat.
“Some people can’t cope with that,” she said.
Gym owners are preparing for a safe return to indoor workouts, though they have no guidance from the state at this point.
“I’m waiting for guidelines that nobody’s getting so I can be ready,” Luther said.
Gonzalez is looking for guidance elsewhere.
“We have been learning and trying to see what other states are doing,” she said.
And when gyms are allowed to open, owners such as Ellison wonder if people will return.
“I’m concerned going forward that we are going to have to overcome the fact that people are going to think gyms are dangerous,” she said. “We’ve been way ahead of the curve with being super proactive about the cleaning.”
Ace Speedway remains barred from holding races with spectators through at least Wednesday.
On Friday, Judge Tom Lambeth of Alamance County Superior Court extended a restraining order against the speedway, located just north of Elon, until he can issue a ruling in a lawsuit brought by the state of North Carolina against the track’s operators.
In a hearing on the order Friday in Graham, an attorney for Ace Speedway argued that the state is stepping on the racetrack owners’ rights to “enjoy the fruit of their labors” and suggested that COVID-19 isn’t an emergency in North Carolina.
A public health official testified that at least one of the track’s thousands of spectators later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Lambeth’s decision came after he spent most of Friday hearing witness testimony, seeing evidence brought by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ lawyers and listening to oral arguments. The DHHS is suing Ace Speedway in the hopes a judge will issue an injunction ordering track operators to stop allowing fans at races until North Carolina enters Phase Three of its reopening.
The state, represented primarily by Andrew Kasper, argued that Ace Speedway owners and operators Jason and Robert Turner defied health guidelines and endangered public health by holding several races with thousands of people in attendance, despite Gov. Roy Cooper ordering them not to. Cooper issued an executive order, under a state of emergency, limiting mass gatherings to 25 people at sporting events.
Lawyers for both sides say about 2,500 people attended the first race of the season at Ace Speedway, and about 2,000 attended each of the next two races.
The Turners, represented by attorney Chuck Kitchen, argued before Lambeth that the owners’ “rights to enjoy the fruit of their labors” — protected under the North Carolina Constitution — were being infringed upon. Lambeth will determine if that’s the case when he issues his ruling Wednesday.
Kitchen also argued there is no COVID-19 emergency in North Carolina, telling the court the virus should be taken seriously, but is not at a level that requires a state of emergency.
“There’s no question COVID is a bad germ, and there’s no question there’s a pandemic worldwide,” Kitchen said. “No one is going to argue what we have going on isn’t serious. But is it serious now? I would submit to the court it is no longer an emergency.”
Alamance County Health Director Stacie Saunders, called as a witness by Kitchen, testified that there is a public health emergency in Alamance County.
DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen also testified the same in a sworn affidavit, according to Kasper. The average number of new COVID-19 cases reported per day in the county has doubled since June 1, Saunders said.
Saunders also said at least one spectator at the May 30 race tested positive for COVID-19. That person is from Cabarrus County, and Saunders said she isn’t sure if the person was already infected with the coronavirus when they came to the track or contracted it while at Ace.
Kitchen also called Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and sheriff’s Maj. Jackie Fortner to testify about their conversations with Jason Turner when they, on behalf of Cooper, asked him not to allow spectators on May 22.
Fortner described Jason Turner as emotional, saying he cried when Fortner told him.
“Mr. Turner said, ‘I’m going to lose everything I got,’ ” Fortner recalled.
He said he and Johnson opted not to cite the Turners, although they were clearly in violation of the governor’s executive order, because they felt the order was unconstitutional. Neither man specified exactly what part of the order the thought was unconstitutional nor whether they meant the state or U.S. Constitution.
Kitchen also argued the governor’s order would do “irreparable harm” to the Turners’ business and they would face foreclosure because of lost revenue. The Turners say they pay about $64,000 a year on the track’s mortgage and other operating costs.
“It’s pretty much a death wish,” Robert Turner said. “We can’t operate. We cannot maintain the facility or pay our bills without the revenue that the racetrack and racing brings.”
Jason Turner said they typically need about 1,000 attendees at each race to break even. The average ticket priceis about $15, and there are 45 mostly part-time employees.
The state agreed that harm would come to the Turners, as it had most businesses during the pandemic shutdown, but the need to protect public health is greater than the need to hold stock car races.
GREENSBORO — A bill supported by all Guilford County legislators is moving through the state House of Representatives and could make it easier for local voters to approve spending on school construction.
The measure, House Bill 1113, would give Guilford County officials the power to guarantee that a sales-tax increase would be used for “school capital outlay purposes only.”
“What we’re trying to do is provide the ability for the county commissioners to propose a sales-tax increase that could specifically be used for school construction,” said state Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Whitsett, the bill’s primary sponsor.
If enacted, the change in law would apply only to Guilford County.
The bill passed the House on second reading in a 114-4 vote earlier this week. It is scheduled for a third and final House vote Monday and then would move to the state Senate for further consideration.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners discussed the bill’s progress at its Thursday night meeting, agreeing to send a letter of thanks to the local legislative delegation in Raleigh along with a message of continued support for the bill.
Commissioners have said they believe local voters rejected previous efforts to increase taxes for school spending — at least in part — because current law does not allow officials to guarantee how proceeds would be spent.
The new bill would change that in Guilford County only for the quarter-cent increase dedicated to school spending.
Guilford County currently levies 2 cents per dollar in sales tax on most purchases. When combined with the state’s sales tax, it totals a rate of 6.75 cents per dollar.
A quarter-cent increase would raise that to 7 cents per dollar for the county.
Although the pandemic has put a crimp in sales-tax revenue, Guilford County officials estimate that in normal times a quarter-cent boost in the sales tax should raise about $19 million per year.
Guilford County is battling a backlog of maintenance in school buildings long past their prime. Consultants have identified improvements they say are needed at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion.
In a related action Friday evening, Guilford commissioners voted unanimously to schedule a referendum Nov. 3 on issuing $300 million in bonds to begin making those improvements.
The commissioners’ brief meeting on Friday evening was a continuation from the day before when they hosted a public hearing about putting the $300 million school bonds referendum on the November ballot. They couldn’t vote to schedule the referendum until 24 hours after Thursday’s public hearing because of North Carolina’s emergency public-hearing law.
Under emergency conditions such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the law allows commissioners to hold public hearings online and by other remote means with limited or no public attendance. But they must wait a day before voting so their virtual audience has time to comment.
Commissioners said during their session Thursday evening that if the local sales-tax bill wins state approval before the August deadline, they also would like to include a referendum question on the November ballot adding the quarter-cent sales tax for school spending.
Existing law permits the commissioners to promise they would spend any added sales-tax revenue on school projects, but they cannot guarantee their successors on future boards will continue honoring that promise.
By contrast, the local bill that Hardister introduced would give Guilford officials the ability to specify that proceeds from a quarter-cent increase would be used only for school construction, maintenance, equipment and other things needed for educational purposes.
The bill sounds as though it would leave room for county officials to spend dollars directly in a pay-as-you-go fashion for a variety of school projects, but that would not be the primary intent, according to Jeff Phillips, who chairs the board of commissioners.
The main goal would be to use the added sales tax to help “defray or offset” the $300 million in proposed bonds, Phillips said.
“We would be allowed to direct those funds on the ballot with specific language that they would be obligated to be spent on Guilford County school facilities,” he said.
Commissioners differ over whether the $300 million amount is sufficient, with some asserting that more is needed to make significant progress.
Phillips said that if voters were to approve the $300 million referendum along with the schools-specific sales tax, county officials could return with another, similar bond proposal in 2022 asking voters to approve additional bonds.
Hardister said the local sales-tax measure has support from the entire Guilford delegation, including four state senators and six House members from both major political parties.
Hardister said he has no doubt schools need modernization, adding that his conviction was reinforced by a recent visit to his 2001 alma mater, Grimsley High School.
“The school was old back then and it’s still old today,” he said.