Owners of fitness facilities across the area hope a judge's ruling in favor of an Orchard Park gym will lead to relaxed restrictions for them, too.
In an oral ruling Wednesday, State Supreme Court Justice Paul B. Wojtaszek granted a preliminary injunction allowing Athletes Unleashed on California Road to reopen at full capacity, despite orders from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo limiting gyms in “orange zones” to 25% capacity.
Wojtaszek’s ruling affects only Athletes Unleashed, which went to court to fight the state’s Covid-19 safety precautions.
The lawsuit was denounced by Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to the governor, as an “argument based on crackpot logic.”
Gyms have endured two Covid-19 safety shutdowns this year, but Cuomo on Dec. 14 allowed gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity in orange zones. Most of Erie County is in an orange zone.
Color-coded zones are part of the state's microcluster strategy, designed to target hot zones while avoiding more sweeping regulations such as the state's "pause" this spring that shuttered all nonessential businesses and schools.
“I’m watching this very closely,” said Amy Bueme, owner of seven Catalyst Fitness centers in the Buffalo area. “Right now, we’re operating at 25%. We are hoping this ruling will encourage the governor to allow gyms to go up to 100%, or at least 75%. If the governor doesn’t do that, I am going to be looking at my own lawsuit. I think this ruling definitely sets a precedent that could help others in the fitness world.”
The lawsuit argues the governor acted beyond his authority in extending executive orders issued as part of the state's pandemic response.
The Orchard Park gym can now operate at “100% capacity,” said attorney Paul J. Cambria, who represented the gym in the lawsuit.
The ruling will remain in effect indefinitely, as legal arguments continue in the case before Wojtaszek, Cambria said.
“He issued the injunction preventing the governor from enforcing a 25% capacity,’ he added.
The judge will hear further arguments in February on Cambria’s challenge to Cuomo’s legal authority to issue “any directive that lasts longer than 30 days” without approval of state legislators, Cambria said.
Athletes Unleashed owner Robert Dinero could not be reached by The News by phone or email on Thursday. He was quoted by WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) as calling the judge’s ruling a “huge win” for him and potentially for other gym owners.
Bueme said Dinero told her he is now operating at 100% capacity.
Bueme said her fitness centers were “very busy” on Thursday, as customers flocked to the facilities for one last workout before Christmas. She said she and others in the fitness industry have worked hard to make changes to adhere to state-imposed safety guidelines.
Erie County officials declined to comment.
A video shows a tense back and forth, with one deputy pointing out that people weren't wearing masks and the protesters accusing county representatives of trespassing and entering the property without a warrant.
For more than a month, the county has been engaged in a legal battle with Dinero over safety precautions at his gym. Dinero drew widespread notice after hosting a protest against Covid-19 business restrictions on Nov. 20 inside his California Road gym, where participants accused Erie County health inspectors of trespassing. A video of the raucous scene went viral, drawing the attention of Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News.
Dinero has appeared nationally on Fox News to denounce Cuomo and state restrictions on gym owners.
The governor has said repeatedly the restrictions are designed to protect the public from the spread of Covid-19.
Cambria said the judge’s verbal ruling came after he argued that the state’s 25% capacity limit for gyms is “arbitrary and capricious.”
Cambria said Athletes Unleashed will require those working out to wear masks and observe social distancing rules to protect one another from the spread of Covid-19.
Cambria filed the lawsuit on Nov. 30, claiming that Cuomo overstepped his authority by instituting Covid-19 safety measures that required many businesses, including gyms, to shut down.
While Wojtaszek’s ruling only pertains to Athletes Unleashed, Cambria suggested that other gyms could be successful with similar legal actions.