A federal appeals court has accepted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request to delay the re-opening of gyms and other fitness centers in the state.
In a ruling that came late Wednesday night, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Gov. Whitmer’s order must remain in place until the government can appeal federal District Judge Paul Maloney’s decision.
The ruling counteracts Maloney’s, which found that Gov. Whitmer’s orders lacked sufficient justification to keep gyms closed while other businesses were allowed to re-open.
In her appeal, Whitmer and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon argued that steps taken for the sake of public health do not need precise metrics or steps akin to “baking a cake.”
The court said that, even as it sympathizes with small businesses, it is not the judiciary’s place to challenge the governor’s lawful public health directives.
“We sympathize deeply with the business and their patrons affected by the governor’s order,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Crises like COVID-19 can call for quick, decisive measures to save lives. Yet those measures can have extreme costs—costs that are not borne evenly.”
“The decision to impose those costs rests with the political branches of government,” they added, “in this case, Governor Whitmer.”
The panel, says the Detroit Free Press, included Judges Julia Smith Gibbons, Deborah Cook, and Chad Readler. Gibbons and Cook were both appointed by former President George W. Bush, while Readler was appointed by President Donald Trump.
Maloney’s order, notes the Free Press, suggested Gov. Whitmer’s office did not provide adequate explanation as to why gyms should remain closed while other businesses begin to re-open. But in their appeal, Whitmer and Gordon said a judge overriding an executive decision could culminate in an “unworkable patchwork” of rules for different businesses and regions across the state.
That, in turn, may “lead to unintended consequences and erosion of the common place to fight the spread of the virus.”
“The idea that gyms—with their high levels of respiratory activity, shared indoor spaces and shared surfaces—might be one of the later businesses to come back online in the midst of this global pandemic is hardly surprisingly and highly sensible,” Whitmer’s attorneys wrote in their appeal.
While the appeals court did not overturn Maloney’s order, it does indicate that Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders are permissible under extant state law.
“All agree that the police power retained by the states empowers state officials to address pandemics such as COVID-19 largely without interference from the courts,” the ruling states. “The idea that heavy breathing and sweating in an enclosed space contained many shared surfaces creates conditions likely to spread the virus […] fairly supports the governor’s treatment of indoor fitness facilities.”
“Though [gym and fitness center owners] bear the very real risk of losing their businesses, the governor’s interest in combating COVID-19 is at least equally significant,” the judges added. “To date, the disease has infected thousands of Michiganders, and it has shown the potential to infect many more. That the public interest weighs in favor of a stay is apparent for the same reason.”
The ruling is reminiscent of earlier judgments upholding Gov. Whitmer’s other coronavirus-related executive orders, including the since-defunct stay-at-home order. In those decisions, judges found that Michiganders’ right to travel freely and without prohibition does not supersede fellow Michiganders’ right to life in the face of a potentially deadly disease.