A federal judge today dismissed lawsuits by health clubs against Gov. Baker's decision to shut them because of Covid-19, partly because the governor has since lifted the ban, partly because the governor acted responsibly to close them as potential health risks in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
US District Court Denise Casper ruled today that, if nothing else, the suits by two companies, one named Gym World, the other World Gym, were moot because Gov. Baker lifted the ban on health clubs earlier this month.
But Casper also denied them damages for the time they were closed between March and July under Baker's declaration of a public-health emergency, saying that far from being "arbitrary and capricious," Baker's decision on what constituted "essential" companies that could remain open showed considerable attention to public-health concerns - the whole point of his emergency declaration and orders related to it:
Contrary to Plaintiffs' assertion that the choice to designate fitness facilities non-essential was arbitrary, the Governor based the decision upon medical and scientific evidence and research, and was, thus rationally related to that interest. An affidavit from Dr. Monica Bharel, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner, attests that the decision regarding fitness facilities was supported by, among other things, research that fitness facilities tend to have a high burden of pathogens on surfaces contributing to ease of spread, the fact that people increase volume and the rate of breathing during exercise causing an increased risk of spread during exercise and a study linking COVID-19 cases to fitness facilities in South Korea that cited the intensity of the workout and warm, moist air as a contributing factor to the spread of the virus. Accordingly, the Governor's actions were rationally related to a legitimate interest and do not violate the equal protection clause.
She added that the governor's new regulations, which require the clubs to take certain sanitizing and social-distancing steps to stay open, do not warrant the governor to pay damages:
While undoubtably, Plaintiffs and many others have suffered a great deal from the global pandemic, the Court does not conclude that the March 23rd Order has led to irreparable harm to these Plaintiffs, particularly where gyms have now been permitted to reopen. During oral argument, Plaintiffs' counsel suggested for the first time that even though the state had entered Phase III and fitness facilities were now permitted to open, injunctive relief was still warranted because the Governor requires gyms to adhere to certain safety practices to reopen. Putting aside that such argument was not made in the parties' motions, the Court cannot say on this record that even such new contention amounts to irreparable harm where there is no suggestion that gyms have been unable to reopen as a result of same.
The clubs raised the issue of due process - they were not given the chance to appeal Baker's decision to shut them in March. Casper said the right of due process is subject to limits in an emergency, adding "[T]he state has a strong interest in stopping the spread of COVID-19, and accordingly, it cannot be said that the Governor’s conduct amounts [to] conscience shocking action."
Casper also took the clubs to the mat on a couple of other legal issues: They should have filed their complaints a lot sooner after the governor's declaration, rather than waiting until June, and they should have considered that because their lawsuits involve actions of the governor of a state, they should have sued in state court, rather than in federal court, because the Eleventh Amendment prohibits federal courts from getting involved in matters that belong in state courts.
In terms of the balancing of the harms and the public interest, enjoining the March 23rd Order here, entered in response to a global health crisis, would simultaneously compromise the public health while "effectively disregard[ing] the balance of powers established by our federal system." ... The public interest here is great, where COVID-19 has infected and taken the lives of numerous Massachusetts residents with the potential to infect more.