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Top Arizona health official testifies in new lawsuit over gyms closure

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona’s top public health official was grilled in court Monday over why health clubs must remain closed in a bid to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, yet supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses can remain open.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, testified in a lawsuit filed by two health club chains challenging Gov. Doug Ducey’s gym closure order.

The clubs — including Mountainside Fitness — lost an earlier challenge, but they renewed their reopening request after the governor extended the closure.

Unlike supermarkets and hardware stores, customers inside health clubs could cause the virus to spread through vigorous breathing within enclosed spaces, even when mask and social distancing requirements are followed, Christ said.

“There is an inherent risk, even when the guidelines are put in place,” Christ said, noting also that the young demographic who frequent health clubs could include asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.

The clubs argue they should be allowed to reopen because they require masks, social distancing and have reduced their overall capacity. They maintain they don’t pose any greater risk of spreading the virus than businesses that have been allowed to reopen.

Nearly a month ago, a judge rejected a request by the clubs to stop enforcement of Ducey’s shutdown, ruling elected officials must be given wide latitude in making decisions in emergency situations.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, testified on behalf of the health clubs, saying a club member who is wearing a mask and social distancing is safer than customers who take off masks as they talk, eat and drink across tables at restaurants.

“The circumstances are completely different in a gym,” said Humble, who previously served as director of the state Department of Health Services.

Judge Timothy Thomason, who is considering the clubs’ request, questioned why Christ couldn’t rightly justify the shutdown over her concerns about the coronavirus spreading in health clubs.

“Isn’t that enough for her to say that?” Thomason asked.

Joel Sannes, attorney for Mountainside Fitness, said it wasn’t enough for Christ to justify her order by citing her authority as the state’s top health official. He questioned why clubs that follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines weren’t allowed to reopen.

Brett Johnson, an attorney representing Ducey, said it would be irresponsible to prematurely end the closure and that the governor and his staff are working hard to protect Arizonans. “They need that flexibility,” Johnson said.

Thomason said he hopes to issue a ruling on Tuesday morning.

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