Three and a half weeks after he locked the doors at Middleton Fitness Center, owner Jonathan Eldredge reopened the Main Street gym on Monday, openly defying Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order.
Fitness centers were among nonessential businesses ordered closed by Little on March 25. The order was extended last week through April 30 and while other nonessential businesses were told to prepare to open May 1, indoor gyms, dine-in restaurants, bars, hair and nail salons and other nonessential businesses “where people simply cannot safely social distance” were excluded.
Eldredge questions whether the governor has the authority to shut down businesses.
“It’s just kind of an infringement on our freedoms and rights to choose who can go where, do what and what businesses can be open,” Eldredge said Monday in an interview at his gym. “It’s a slippery slope and kind of a dangerous precedent.”
The Middleton Police Department has not issued a citation. The department referred the Statesman to Mayor Steven Rule.
Rule told the Idaho Statesman that after the city received several complaints about Middleton Fitness reopening Monday, he contacted Little’s office to obtain guidance on enforcing the governor’s order. He said he was referred to the Idaho State Police, which told him the state was deferring action to local authorities.
“I didn’t particularly care for that answer,” Rule said by phone Tuesday.
Middleton is about 23 miles west of Boise and 12 miles north of Nampa, Idaho.
The order provides for enforcement by city police departments, county sheriffs and the Idaho State Police. The Statesman reported previously that as of last week, police departments in Boise, Meridian, Nampa or Caldwell had not cited or closed any businesses operating in violation of the governor’s order.
On Tuesday afternoon, Meridian police arrested Sara Walton Brady, 40, for misdemeanor trespassing after refusing to leave a closed playground at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park. Brady was taken into custody after ignoring multiple police requests to leave the structure, the city said.
Last week in Northern Idaho, Christa Thompson of Rathdrum was cited for holding a yard sale in violation of the governor’s order. Thompson said she was sorting items at her late father’s home and was not conducting a yard sale.
Rule also spoke to officials from the Central District Health Department. He said he was told that the health department chose to educate Middleton Fitness and other nonessential businesses on safe health practices rather than to enforce Little’s order.
“The short answer is that the state’s not going to enforce it,” Rule said. “They sent it to local jurisdictions and local jurisdictions could write tickets. But the courts are closed, they they’ve chosen instead to recommend health, safe distance and sterilization practices.”
Eldredge, who employs five people plus several independent-contractor trainers, told a crowd of hundreds who gathered in a “Disobey Idaho” protest Friday on the steps of the Capitol that he would reopen this week.
He said he was disappointed Little issued his order without discussing it with business owners. Little’s order allows grocery stores, auto repair shops, restaurants providing only takeout and delivery service, and other government and businesses providing “essential” services to keep operating.
“We were shut down without the opportunity to pivot or to adjust or to be given any consideration,” Eldredge said. “And it’s a tough thing to plan for reopening when you don’t know whether it’s going to be a day, a week, a month, a year.”
Little’s amended order allows stores that can provide curbside pickup or delivery while keeping customers out of the businesses to reopen.
A Nampa bar, Slick’s Bar, says it will reopen Saturday, also in defiance of the governor’s order.
Little’s office did not return a Statesman call seeking reaction to businesses ignoring his order and law enforcement agencies failing to take action.
On Monday, Eldredge provided club members who came to work out masks if they wanted them. Inside the front door was a sign asking people to keep 6 feet from other patrons and to maintain good hygiene practices. Bottles of spray sanitizer and towels were provided.
Eldredge said he turned off every other elliptical trainer and treadmill to maintain space between patrons. He and his employees wiped down surfaces to avoid possible contamination.
“I can guarantee that our facility is cleaner than a Home Depot or a grocery store or the liquor store or another company,” Eldredge said. “We’ve always prided ourselves in having a clean facility.”
Several people visited the fitness center Monday to work out. Eldredge said he didn’t have a count but said the number was about average for before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Eldredge said he’s prepared to limit the number of people inside the gym to 40 at one time — to maintain 6-foot social distancing — but he said he’s never had that many people at one time in the six and a half years he’s operated Middleton Fitness.
He said people he’s spoken with have been generally supportive of him reopening. There were a few negative posts to Middleton Fitness’ Facebook page, but those appear to be from people outside Idaho. He said he let the company’s phone go to voicemail on Monday so he wouldn’t have to deal with any negative comments.
Rule, who served as a Canyon County commissioner for 12 years before leaving office in 2018, said he understands the frustration of Eldredge and other business owners and employees losing money because of store closures.
“I would rather the businesses comply, but these owners have mortgages, and cash flow is critical to their success, so I can understand their side, too,” he said.
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