A judge on Friday granted the state a restraining order against a Vermont man who opened his indoor fitness centers in defiance of Gov. Phil Scott's executive order.
The ruling came just hours after Attorney General T.J. Donovan filed a civil lawsuit in Rutland Superior Court accusing Sean Manovill of illegally operating two Club Fitness gyms and not taking basic steps to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 at his businesses.
The judge's order forces the gyms in Rutland and Castleton to close until further notice. The state is also asking a judge to issue penalties of up to $1,000 for each day Manovill violated the order, and for him to reimburse the state for its investigative and court costs.
It's the only state enforcement action taken in Vermont since Scott declared a state of emergency and issued a "stay-at-home" order roughly two months ago. On Friday, the governor extended the state of emergency into June.
Scott is gradually lifting some restrictions and will allow retail businesses to reopen under certain conditions on May 18. Gyms and other "close-contact" businesses, though, must remain closed.
“The vast majority of Vermonters have done the right thing," Donovan said in a press release. "It’s not fair to them or other businesses to let Mr. Manovill openly violate the order.”
Police had visited the 4,000-square-foot Rutland location several times this month. Each time, they found a handful of gym members doing workouts without wearing masks or staying six feet apart, according to the state's court filings. Manovill has said he reopened his doors on May 1.
In an interview Friday, Manovill said he agreed to close his business for seven days after Donovan's office sent him a cease-and-desist letter on May 5. He decided to reopen the businesses on Friday, citing a "moral duty."
"I'm a fitness guy, man," he said. "I think health and wellness — other than faith and family — is the most important thing we all have to have. I just honestly believe this is one of those situations where it's becoming semantics of paperwork instead of logic on lives."
Asked whether it was dangerous to open his gyms, Manovill said his business was safer than others that have been allowed to reopen so far.
"I would answer that question with another question: Do you think it's dangerous to have 50 people in a liquor store buying alcohol at the same time?" he said, claiming to have witnessed such a scene at a recent trip to the store.
The state's public health professionals disagree. In its motion for the restraining order, the state included an affidavit from state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso, who said the virus can spread more easily in indoor spaces where people perform strenuous activities.
"With heavy breathing indoors and frequent touching of surfaces, the risk of transmission is high," she wrote.