WARREN, R.I. — An owner of fitness clubs in Rhode Island is defying an order from Governor Gina M. Raimondo for all gyms and recreational facilities to close for two weeks as health officials try to slow an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases.
The two-week pause that started Monday closed bars, gyms, and casinos, asks most high school students to learn from home, and orders companies to have most employees work from home.
— Boston Globe Rhode Island (@Globe_RI) November 19, 2020
Matt D’Amico, who owns The Maxx Fitness Clubzz franchises in Lincoln and Warren, opened as usual on Monday, however, and has remained open since then. He said that closing would be financially devastating.
“We did it in March and the shutdown lasted 10, 12 weeks. I just can’t survive it again,” D’Amico said. “It’s not about profitability — it’s landlords, equipment rentals, payroll and staff. And, I don’t think it’s right, when everyone else gets to stay open.”
The Health Department issued $500 fines at both locations and ordered the facilities to close immediately and stay closed until the restrictions are lifted.
But D’Amico has refused to shut down. Both Maxx locations were open and busy Wednesday.
“You can say we’re fighting for freedom. It’s what it is,” D’Amico said. “I invested millions of dollars.”
Raimondo ordered the two-week pause in an attempt to stem the rising wave of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, which led to the opening of field hospitals on Monday. Rhode Island was up to 59,005 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 1,032 new cases, 11 more deaths, and 408 people hospitalized.
The governor’s office and Health Department referred questions about Maxx Fitness Clubzz to the state Department of Business Regulation, where a spokesman declined to comment “as it is an ongoing and actively evolving situation.”
The fitness clubs are the first businesses to be cited since the pause began on Monday. “I have legal counsel, and we’ll take it day by day,” D’Amico said. “I don’t think fitness centers should be singled out… I believe I have constitutional rights to be able to operate my business.”
D’Amico said his fitness centers have complied with other coronavirus-related all of the Health regulations, keeping the facilities clean and screening staff and customers for COVID-19 symptoms. Health officials told them that some visitors to the fitness centers had tested positive for COVID, but they inspected the facilities and found no problems, he said.
“We have a bunch of customers, and a lot of new members are signing up,” Stephen Couture, the manager of the Lincoln club, said Wednesday.
D’Amico said customers were thanking them for taking a stand. He said he talked to the state code enforcement officials Tuesday about deeming fitness clubs “essential businesses.”
“What about mental fitness and immune support?” D’Amico asked.