COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s decision to shut down gyms and fitness centers was “arbitrary, unreasonable and oppressive,” a judge ruled Wednesday in a largely symbolic finding that nevertheless underscored an ongoing debate over the state’s response to the pandemic.
The nine-page ruling by Lake County Court Judge Eugene Lucci applies only to gyms in that northeastern Ohio county. Meanwhile, gyms are set to reopen May 26 under an updated order announced last week by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.
Lucci responded to a lawsuit brought by gym owners that argued Health Director Dr. Amy Acton exceeded her authority when she lumped places to exercise into the nonessential business category on March 22 and ordered them closed.
Lucci agreed, saying Acton acted “in an impermissibly arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive manner and without any procedural safeguards.”
Gyms provide important physical and mental benefits when operated safely, but are also not places where people concerned about the coronavirus are forced to go, the judge said.
“Prolonged lockdowns have deleterious effects upon the public psyche,” the judge added. “Humans are naturally social beings; socialization strengthens immunities against disease and benefits psychological health.”
A message was left with the Attorney General’s office, which represented Acton. DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the governor disagreed with the judge’s analysis of the law, but noted gyms are opening soon regardless.
Though the ruling is largely moot because of gyms’ imminent reopening, appealing the case could benefit the state by clarifying whether it has authority to issue such orders, said Jonathan Adler, a constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University.
“The existence of an emergency does not trigger a law-free zone,” Adler said. “It is valuable to have a better understanding of what sorts of power the state can and can’t exercise when there is a public health or other emergency.”
In a related development, the GOP-controlled Ohio Senate on Wednesday rejected an effort by House Republicans to limit the health director’s public health orders to 14 days, after which the Legislature would have to review them for renewal.
House lawmakers approved the measure earlier this month out of frustration at the economic devastation experienced by many Ohio businesses as a result of the shut-down orders. DeWine has said he would veto the measure if it reached his desk.
The number of confirmed and probable deaths associated with the coronavirus in Ohio has reached 1,789, state health officials said.
The Ohio Department of Health said that 61 new deaths were reported in the past day and that overall there have been a total of 5,100 hospitalizations.
Health officials said there were nearly 29,500 cases considered either confirmed or probable.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Cleveland’s zoo welcomed back visitors on Wednesday for the first time in two months, allowing them to get a glimpse of the tigers and bears by car. Cruise the Zoo will be open on Wednesdays through Sundays until the end of May. Visitors must stay in their cars while they drive around the zoo. Reservations are required and limited to control the number of vehicles.
Seewer reported from Toledo.