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Salem gyms open, could face fines by defying Oregon COVID-19 orders

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Dr. Esther Choo speaks on the dangers of medical facilities reaching capacity if Oregonians do not heed new restrictions imposed by Gov. Brown’s two-week freeze statewide.

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Courthouse Club Fitness went forward with its promise to defy Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order for gyms to close on Wednesday, with all five of its locations open across Salem and Keizer. 

Flex Fitness, a family-owned gym on Commercial Street, also stayed open. 

Both gyms said they wouldn’t survive the economic hit of a second shutdown, but they could also end up facing major fines.  

Brown’s order required all gym and fitness centers to close as part of a two-week “freeze” aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which has spiked in recent weeks. 

Any business willfully staying open, in defiance of the order, could face a minimum fine of $8,900 and maximum penalty of $126,749, according to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces compliance. 

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Staying open could also bring a Class C misdemeanor charge. 

The owners of Courthouse and Flex Fitness both said they wouldn’t make it through the freeze. 

“As a result of the harm done to our business from the initial COVID-19 shutdown, we cannot make the decision to close down our facility,” Flex Fitness wrote on its Facebook page. “We simply will not survive. We will remain open for business on Wednesday and the days to follow.” 

Both gyms have stressed being in accordance with mandates such as social distancing, wearing masks and rigorous sanitation practices. Both said they’d reduce capacity by 50 percent.

“Just because we’re drawing a line doesn’t mean we’re throwing everything out the window in terms of health and safety,” Courthouse vice president Drew Baker told the Statesman Journal. “We plan to run all our programs normally and adjust to any changes based on demand. We’ll see what the reaction looks like and go from there.” 

Gyms and fitness centers are not the only places required to close during the freeze. The order requires some businesses and “faith-based organizations” to limit capacity. It requires others, including gyms, indoor recreational facilities, museums and others to close completely for the duration of the two weeks — if not longer.  

Related: Gyms across Oregon struggle to navigate second shutdown, stay in business

Gov. Brown executive orders: Oregon ‘freeze’ enforceable by law with Gov. Brown’s executive order

Penalties for staying open could get steep

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 50 citations have been issued to businesses for not complying with parts of the pandemic orders by OSHA, which is designed to protect employees. 

The fines have typically ranged from $100 to $2,000 for lower-level citations, to $8,900 to $14,000 for “willful violations.” 

A willful violation includes keeping a business open after it’s been ordered to close, OSHA said. The highest citation so far was handed out to Salem’s Glamour Salon, which was fined $14,000 in May for remaining open.

“We know these are incredibly challenging times for businesses, but with transmission rates rising and people dying, if you’re required to close, that’s what you need to do,” OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin said. “Openly defying these restrictions is a willful violation of workplace safety there to protect workers from hazards — and COVID-19 is a hazard.” 

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Corvin said the process begins when OSHA gets a complaint about an employer, which is then evaluated. They typically attempt to resolve the situation with a call to the business. If that doesn’t work, they may open an investigation.  

“The only point citations are possible is after that formal enforcement visit,” Corvin said. 

Why were gyms asked to shut down in the first place? 

Gym owners across Oregon have expressed frustration that they were told to shut down, given there has not been an outbreak traced back to a gym or fitness center. 

Owners have also stressed that exercise is critical for mental and physical health during a time of particularly high stress. 

“We believe exercise is medicine. We believe gyms are safe and when adhering to safety measures, gyms are and should be considered essential,” wrote Landon Burningham, owner of Physiq Fitness, which considered staying open but ultimately decided to close. 

Delia Hernandez, spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Authority, explained the reasoning behind the gym and restaurant closures and why no cases have been traced back to a gym.  

“We see overlap between people who report attendance at social gatherings across places. Because of this overlap, we cannot definitively pinpoint where transmission occurs, but there are associations with these social get togethers,” she said. “In addition, the percentage of sporadic cases has increased, indicating broader community spread. Gyms and fitness centers pose risks because when exercising people breathe heavily, which produces more droplets and aerosols that are potentially infectious, and they may sweat on face coverings, which can reduce effectiveness of filtration.” 

Even so, many gym owners feel as though they’re taking the biggest economic hit while other retailers are allowed to stay open. 

 “It does feel like gyms and restaurants are bearing the brunt of this while other indoor businesses are able to continue,” said Scott Hagnas, owner of CrossFit Portland. 

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. Urness can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

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