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Fri, Sept. 25

Gyms fighting Ducey’s closure order

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s gym closure order is under legal fire from several health club chains. (Photo by Howard Fischer/For the Miner)

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s gym closure order is under legal fire from several health club chains. (Photo by Howard Fischer/For the Miner)

PHOENIX - Arizona’s top public health official was grilled in court Monday over why health clubs must remain closed in a bid to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, yet supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses can remain open.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, testified in a lawsuit filed by two health club chains challenging Gov. Doug Ducey’s gym closure order. The clubs lost an earlier challenge but renewed their reopening request after the governor extended the closure.

Unlike supermarkets and hardware stores, customers inside health clubs could cause the virus to spread through vigorous breathing within enclosed spaces, even when mask and social distancing requirements are followed, Christ said.

“There is an inherent risk, even when the guidelines are put in place,” Christ said, noting also that the young demographic who frequent health clubs could include asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.

The clubs argue they should be allowed to reopen because they require masks and social distancing and have reduced their overall capacity. They maintain they don’t pose any greater risk of spreading the virus than businesses that have been allowed to reopen.

Nearly a month ago, a judge rejected a request by the clubs to stop enforcement of Ducey’s shutdown, ruling that elected officials must be given wide latitude in making decisions in emergency situations.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, testified on behalf of the health clubs, saying a club member who is wearing a mask and social distancing is safer than customers who take off masks as they talk, eat and drink across tables at restaurants.

“The circumstances are completely different in a gym,” said Humble, who previously served as director of the state Department of Health Services.

Judge Timothy Thomason, who is considering the clubs’ request, questioned why Christ had to justify the shutdown beyond saying she was concerned about the coronavirus spreading in health clubs.

“Isn’t that enough for her to say that?” Thomason asked.

Joel Sannes, attorney for Mountainside Fitness, said it wasn’t enough for Christ to justify her order by citing her authority as the state’s top health official. He questioned why clubs that follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines weren’t allowed to reopen.

Brett Johnson, an attorney representing Ducey, said it would be irresponsible to prematurely end the closure and that the governor and his staff are working hard to protect Arizonans. “They need that flexibility,” Johnson said.

Thomason said he hopes to issue a ruling on Tuesday morning.In other developments: — Officials on Monday reported 1,030 additional cases of the coronavirus and 14 more deaths.

Authorities have recorded more than 179,000 cases and 3,779 deaths from the virus in the state since the pandemic began. In-patient hospitalizations, ventilators in use and intensive care unit occupancy continue to trend downward slightly.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

But for some people who contract the virus, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions, it can cause more severe illness and death. The vast majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 recover.

In other COVID-related developments:

– Ducey’s office said Monday that he plans to meet with President Donald Trump and members of the White House coronavirus task force on Wednesday in the Oval Office. He also plans to take part in a session of the Council of Governors on Thursday and meet with other health officials to discuss the pandemic.

Washington requires travelers from Arizona and more than two dozen other states with high rates of virus spread to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving. Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said the governor is exempt because he's traveling on essential government business.

– Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said Monday that it’s unlikely schools can safely open for full in-person instruction by Aug. 17, when Ducey’s latest closure order expires. The virus is still too rampant in the community, she said.

The Department of Health Services is preparing a list of metrics that can guide schools in decisions about whether to re-open, which are supposed to be released by Friday. School districts will use the guidelines to decide if it is safe to reopen, and that's not in sight, she said.

“Our state is simply not ready to have all our students and educators congregate in school facilities,” Hoffman said. “If we want to return to in-person instruction, every Arizonan must make it their mission to slow the spread of this virus.”

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