Ohio was among the first states in the nation to issue strict “stay-at-home” orders that forced people to isolate in their residences and mandated the indefinite closure of “non-essential” businesses.
However, Cleveland media outlet WOIO reported on Wednesday that a state judge had issued an injunction preventing the enforcement of penalties against gyms and fitness centers, essentially reopening that particular category of small businesses.
The injunction issued by Lake County Court of Common Pleas Judge Eugene Lucci came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of 35 gyms and fitness centers across the state that had claimed their rights had been violated and that irreparable harm had been caused by the lockdown orders.
In Lucci’s nine-page ruling, he declared that Ohio Health Department Director Amy Acton, the Lake County General Health District, law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, and the state’s attorney general were all expressly barred from “imposing or enforcing penalties solely for non-compliance with the director’s orders” regarding the lockdown.
Furthermore, provided that all of the small businesses at issue were otherwise operating “in compliance with applicable safety regulations,” they were permitted to open up for the general public and/or paying members.
Lockdowns deemed “arbitrary, unreasonable”
In reaching his decision to grant the injunction against state officials, Judge Lucci considered a number of relevant factors, such as the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits, whether irreparable harm had indeed occurred, and whether an injunction would best serve the interests of the public while maintaining a status quo until the case could be fully argued in a trial.
Lucci laid out the timeline of the initial lockdown order and subsequent expansions and extensions — without any additional legislative authorization — prior to keying in on two specific phrases that were fundamental to the Health Department director’s claimed authorities, namely, “isolation” and “quarantine.”
Those two words are important because, according to the relevant Ohio statutes, the director only had the authority to isolate sick individuals or quarantine healthy-but-exposed individuals for the duration of the period of communicability, which in the case of the coronavirus is approximately 14 days.
“The director has quarantined the entire people of the state of Ohio, for much more than 14 days,” Lucci wrote, according to The Columbus Dispatch. “The director has no statutory authority to close all businesses, including the plaintiff’s gyms, which she deems non-essential for a period of two months. She has acted in an impermissibly arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive manner.”
Curtailing “unfettered power”
As for the irreparable harm question, Judge Lucci noted that private property rights are fundamental in Ohio, writing, “The defendant has criminalized lawful businesses, imposing strict liability for violations, including severe criminal, civil, and equitable penalties. Some of the plaintiffs’ businesses will not survive the lockdown of two or more months.”
In the end, according to Reason magazine, the judge determined that he could not allow Ohioans to be further harmed by “one unelected official” who had assumed the “unfettered power” to force everyone’s compliance with “impermissibly oppressive, vague, arbitrary, and unreasonable rules that the director devised and revised, and modified and reversed, whenever and as she pleases, without any legislative guidance.”
As such, barring an appeal that results in a hold on the injunction, the state can no longer enforce its mandates against so-called “non-essential” businesses. And while this ruling is narrowly focused on gyms in Ohio, the fundamentals of the decision could rightly be applied to countless other businesses all across the country.