Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday announced he is suing a Wabasha County gym that is defying a state order to close for four weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Plainview Wellness Center has remained open despite Gov. Tim Walz's order last week calling for the shutdown, which began last Friday, Ellison said.
"Gov. Walz has made the tough but smart choice to dial back activities that data have shown spread COVID-19," Ellison said. "I know these requirements are hard on folks — but fortunately, the vast majority of people and businesses affected are making that sacrifice and complying with the order, because they know we're all responsible for stopping the spread of COVID."
But gym owner Brandon Reiter, who served in the U.S. Army and National Guard, including a tour of duty in Iraq, said he intends to fight what he considers an unfair overreach by the governor that discriminates against small businesses.
"It is my choice to remain open," he said. "I don't force anyone to come into my gym. They're doing it for their health, or well-being, or their mental health," he said. "There are going to be thousands of people going to the big box stores over the holidays, but I can't have 10-15 people in here?
"If I'm going to go bankrupt, I'm going to go down swinging."
COVID-19 has infected more than 10 million Americans, including more than 275,000 Minnesotans. More than 3,000 Minnesotans and 250,000 Americans have died from it.
"No one is immune from COVID-19, but we all have the power to stop it," Ellison said.
The lawsuit, and a motion for a temporary restraining order, is the first action taken against a business under the most recent shutdown order issued by Walz, which applies to in-person dining at bars and restaurants along with gyms, health clubs and venues hosting indoor events.
It is only the third time Ellison has moved against defiant businesses since Walz first invoked emergency powers in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless extended, the most recent order requires that gyms and venues hosting indoor events must remain closed until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 18.
Ellison said his office has civil authority to enforce that prohibition and seek relief if necessary.
Earlier this year, Ellison's office filed suit against the owner of Shady's, a chain of bars and restaurants whose owner had vowed to reopen in violation of temporary executive orders issued in May to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A judge later ruled that the tavern owner must follow restrictions limiting on-premise dining and drinking. Both cases remain in litigation.
Ellison's office said they first reached out to Plainview Wellness Center to "educate the management on the requirements of Executive Order 20-99. In response, management threatened to continue to operate and stay open to the public in violation of the Order's requirements, thereby potentially exposing more Minnesotans to community spread of COVID-19."
Ellison said: "I'd much rather that everyone comply — but when it's necessary to go to court to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect compliant businesses from unfair competition, I won't hesitate to do so."
Reiter, who has owned the gym for seven years, said he is fighting to protect something, too: his business and his livelihood.
When Walz first shut down businesses last March, Reiter said he complied. But he reopened May 1 — more than a month before Walz's order expired — because of the financial hardship it was causing.
"I'm not downplaying the coronavirus and COVID-19. But it affects everyone differently," he said. "This is about our civil rights. This is where my passion comes from now. I served this country to have our rights and freedoms. And they're getting taken away daily. It just blows my mind."