By Lindsay Marchello
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Jeff Brooks was watching the governor in a news conference. Brooks, who owns a gym in Onslow County, immediately realized he was in trouble.
“I remember turning to my wife and saying, ‘He’s going to screw us.’” Brooks, co-owner of Swansboro Health and Fitness, told Carolina Journal.
Gov. Roy Cooper, as Brooks expected, twisted the blade.
The governor on Wednesday, May 20, announced he would move North Carolina into Phase Two of his plan to reopen the state. Cooper’s executive order allows a partial reopening of some businesses he closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak in North Carolina. But it excludes myriad others, including private bars and clubs, movie theaters, museums, and gyms.
The order became effective at 5 p.m. Friday.
Several gym owners are publicly crying foul, and lawyers are already crafting lawsuits. Republican elected officials aren’t happy, either, calling on Cooper to amend his order during a meeting of the Council Of State on Friday. Some GOP legislators want to rein in the governor’s emergency powers during the short session, but they lack the votes to override Cooper’s certain veto.
Brooks may have to wait another five weeks, the governor says, before he can open. But Cooper was even noncommittal about that.
“This has been a punch to the gut,” Brooks said.
“We wanted to take this modest step forward with Phase Two,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said during Wednesday’s news conference.
Gyms are considered places where the risk of spreading COVID-19 is high. People are breathing heavily in close proximity and spraying droplets with the virus around the facility, Cohen said.
The state has been working with the association representing gyms to develop guidance for what the fitness facilities would have to do to reopen, Cohen said.
“This has been going on for two months,” Brooks said. “The prospect of another five weeks, that’s three rent cycles. … You can only bear so much.”
Brooks, along with many other gym owners, was prepared to reopen under Phase Two. The entrepreneurs spent money on cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers, and took time to space out equipment to ensure social distancing within the facilities.
“We have been preparing, maybe over-preparing in terms of cleaning,” Carolina Barbell gym co-owner Kirsten Ostby told CJ. “It was really surprising that [Cooper] announced in his press conference that we were not included. There was no forewarning.”
Jayme Limbaugh, owner of Anytime Fitness in Morehead City, told CJ she’s ready to reopen, but her franchise agreement requires that she wait for a go-ahead from the government.
“Right now my main focus is getting my rights back and being able to open and have the governor’s blessing,” Limbaugh said. “No one should have to go against this. I should be able to open and not have this conversation. I’m putting all my efforts into getting this overturned and getting my rights back.”
Limbaugh could be part of a lawsuit along with several other gym owners frustrated with the governor’s executive order.
Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, is helping in the effort. The lawmaker posted on his Facebook page a plea for owners of restricted businesses, including gym owners, to contact him about joining a lawsuit against Cooper.
“It took one week to get the churches open, one week to get the hairdressers open, and we are now going after the remaining businesses,” Kidwell wrote in reference to earlier lawsuits challenging Cooper’s COVID-19 executive orders.
While some gym owners are exploring the legal route, others have decided to open in defiance of the executive order.
A gym owner in Carteret County, who requested anonymity, has opened already. The gym owner told CJ the community has suffered too long. Stress levels are increasing, the owner said, and members who can’t go to the gym are becoming unhealthy from lack of regular exercise.
“This [shutdown] is a detriment to their health,” the owner said.
Other nearby gyms will open soon, too, the Carteret owner said.
In a news conference Friday, Cooper was asked what he would say to gym owners who spent thousands preparing to reopen under Phase Two.
Public health and safety are a top priority for North Carolina, Cooper said. The state will continue to work with businesses that are still closed, but it’s important to remember people working out are at high risk for spreading COVID-19, the governor said.
Meantime, several bills were introduced in the General Assembly to rein in the governor’s absolute powers during emergencies.
House Bills 1033 and 1054 are proposed constitutional amendments that require the General Assembly to convene if a governor issues a statewide emergency declaration.
H.B. 1059 is a statute requiring the governor to give the Council of State 24 hours to review a statewide emergency declaration before giving it a binding yes or no vote. If approved, the General Assembly could revise or reject it if it’s still in effect eight legislative days after it’s been issued.
None is likely to face a vote in the House during the short session, Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight” Thursday during an interview.
Moore acknowledged interest among Republicans to act, but he said Democrats would stand lockstep with Cooper. Republicans don’t have enough votes to override Cooper’s certain veto of such a measure.
The six Republican Council of State members have criticized the Cooper administration’s Phase Two plans.
“We’re now punishing the healthy,” State Treasurer Dale Folwell said during the Friday meeting. Folwell contracted COVID-19 and recovered.
Folwell was an early COVID-19 patient in North Carolina. He was diagnosed with the virus in late March, after returning from a trip to Utah with his son. He spent five days hospitalized at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem and has said at times it was a struggle to keep breathing.
Focusing on the sick is important, but so is making sure the healthy aren’t suffering either, Folwell said at the Council of State meeting. He asked Cooper to amend his executive order immediately to allow gyms to reopen with safety precautions in place.
Cooper denied the request.