Friday, 29 May 2020 19:25

Rockingham Police cite gym owner for opening in violation of governor's emergency order

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Blake Altman, owner of Evolution Health Club, looks over a citation he was given for violating Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order to close certain businesses, including gyms and fitness centers. Blake Altman, owner of Evolution Health Club, looks over a citation he was given for violating Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order to close certain businesses, including gyms and fitness centers. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — One Richmond County gym owner was prepared to go to jail for defying a state order just so he could make a living.

Blake Altman, owner of Evolution Health Club, opened his business back up Thursday and was visited by officers of the Rockingham Police Department.

He says they gave him a warning and provided a copy of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order, issued March 23, which keeps certain businesses — including gyms and fitness centers — closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I said, ‘Alright sir, I’m not closing, so just go back and tell whoever to come get me or do what they have to do,’” Altman recalled early Friday afternoon.

He said in the past two days, officers went to his gym five times.

When officers returned on Friday morning, Altman still refused to close and was charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor for being in “violation of Emergency prohibitions and restrictions,” which is subject to a $1,000 fine.

Altman said he was initially threatened with arrest if he didn’t have everyone cleared out by 2 p.m.

“I said, ‘Well, come do what you have to do,”” he said. “I will die before I close my doors.”

Detective Lt. George Gillenwater, public information officer for the Rockingham Police Department, said Friday afternoon that, as of now, the citation will be the only action taken against Altman.

“We hate that we have to do that,” he said, adding that it was “unfortunate” Altman decided to take the stance that he has.

Altman said he applied for small business relief from the federal government but did not receive it. If he had, he would have stayed closed.

“I was put in a position where I had to open,” he said. “It’s not about a statement, it’s not about being rebellious, It’s about surviving.”

Although he’s glad he didn’t get cuffed, Altman is perturbed that he still has to go to court on July 16 “for trying to run a business.”

With the charge, he feels he’s being treated like a criminal “for trying to feed my kids.”

Other Class 2 misdemeanors include injury to property, resisting a public officer, cyberstalking, disorderly conduct, trespassing and vandalism.

Altman was also upset with the frequent visits from officers, thinking that could have kept some members away.

“How humiliating is it for cop cars to be in front of my business?” he queried. “They’ve been riding through patrolling … that’s kind of intimidating, and its harm for my business.”

Altman recently reopened after moving from his previous downtown location to a spot beside Food Lion on U.S. 1.

All other businesses in that strip mall, including The Grille and the state-run ABC Store have still been allowed to remain open with certain restrictions.

“It’s a shame that, in the great country of America, that a private-owned business that promotes good health would be cited by the local police department,” Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, said after hearing about the situation. “It would seem to me that the city of Rockingham Police Department certainly has bigger fish to fry than to harass and cite a small business owner struggling to stay alive.”

McInnis is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 712, currently pending in the General Assembly, that would cap the penalty and fine of what McInnis called “such frivolous law enforcement action.”

The bill reduces fines to a maximum $25 for the first offense and $1 per day for each subsequent violation.

It also prohibits occupational licensing boards from taking adverse actions - including revoking licenses and levying fines - against any license holder for violating Executive Orders 118, 120, 121, 131 and 135 and any executive order issued after April 23 in response to the COVID-19 emergency.

The bill was filed May 5 and has been in the Senate Rules Committee since May 7 since passing its first reading.

Rep. Scott Brewer, D-Richmond could not be reached in time for publication.

The Carolina Journal reported earlier this month that other states had started letting gyms open and, at the time, it was hoped they would be included in Phase 2.

However, when Cooper announced the second of his three-phase plan, gyms were not included.

Earlier this week, a coalition of owners of health clubs, gyms, spas and karate dojos filed a lawsuit against Cooper’s order, the Carolina Journal reported.

“Governor Cooper fails to realize that they are not there as social clubs,” said state Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort. “They are an essential part of the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.”

Kidwell has been active in multiple challenges to Cooper’s executive orders.

Neil Strother, owner of Victory Fitness in Wilson, locked his doors this week after being cited, the Wilson Times reported.

North Carolina isn’t alone in keeping gyms off limits.

A fitness center in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was padlocked in early April for failing to comply with a state closure order. Earlier this month, police in Bellmawr, New Jersey, cited both a gym’s owners and its members, arresting one who failed to give his name to officers.

Altman plans to remain open, despite the citation.

“It’s either go under or play by this governor’s rules at this point,” Altman said. “I played along with the rules, then I saw this last phase —  you can get a tattoo, you can get a manicure, you can swim in a public pool, you can lay in a tanning bed, you can go to Myrtle Beach. You can do everything, but don’t go in a bar and don’t go in a gym.

“It’s discrimination against businesses at this point,” he added. “It’s not about a virus.”