A Southern California gym has reopened despite the arrest of its owner last weekend after authorities said he violated orders that prohibit such businesses from operating as part of an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus
5 min read
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — About a dozen masked weightlifters did sets in front of mirrors at a Southern California gym that was open Thursday despite the weekend arrest of its owner who was charged with a misdemeanor after authorities said he violated stay-at-home orders intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Lou Uridel — wearing a red, white and blue mask with a stars and stripes pattern and the words “justice for all” emblazoned across it — vowed to keep the doors open at his Metroflex Gym in the coastal city of Oceanside, north of San Diego.
But he said he warns his customers that they might be handcuffed and hauled off like he was on Sunday.
“There’s some members who kind of shy away from that and there’s some members who say, you know what, if they’re going to take me away in handcuffs for working out, then they can go ahead and do it,” Uridel said.
Uridel may be the first business owner arrested in California, although a growing number of businesses have defied state and local orders and reopened. Tesla CEO Elon Musk reopened his plant in defiance of Alameda County health rules and tweeted that he was prepared to be arrested. He wasn’t. Instead, he won praise from President Donald Trump. Musk and local officials reached an agreement to allow vehicle production to resume next week.
Authorities wary of a public backlash have preferred to use warnings to get businesses to comply. But forcing a business to shut its doors and cite the owners is rare, and arrests are even more rare.
The state is now allowing some counties with a low infection rate to allow certain businesses to reopen more quickly than others. But gyms are not being allowed to reopen anywhere in the state because they are considered a high-risk business due to people being indoors, touching machines and breathing hard as they exercise.
Uridel has been charged with a misdemeanor and will be arraigned in 90 days, though the arrest is under review, said Tanya Sierra, spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office.
Bonnie Stauffer, spokeswoman for the Oceanside Police Department, said Uridel will be cited for every day the gym is open. Police were working with the San Diego County district attorney’s office to review their options, Stauffer said.
“I don’t know what other enforcement can be done at this point,” she said.
The maximum fine for breaking a public health law in California is $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail for each day a violation occurs.
Uridel, who has the support of at least one city councilman, said he hopes prosecutors will drop the case. He said he had no choice about reopening the gym.
“We lost a third of our membership that took us a year and a half to get,” Uridel said. “If we waited, with the bills mounting, we weren’t going to be able to recover.”
Uridel said he has taken every precaution so his customers feel safe.
Large handwritten signs at the gym warn people that no one will be allowed in if they are coughing or show other symptoms, and that everyone must sign a waiver declaring they are not ill. It says all rules will be enforced, including no gym bags or showering at the gym, and members must wear masks and shirts at all times. Everyone must maintain six feet of space between each other, wipe down machinery after each use, and wash their hands before entering the gym and before leaving it.
Uridel said he also closes the gym every 90 minutes for deep cleaning and sanitizing.
Since he opened Friday, he has had about 120 people come in daily, staggered over a 12-hour period.
Uridel was held by police for only about an hour Sunday before being released. He didn’t reopen his gym until Wednesday because he was told police would handcuff and arrest every customer at the facility. He later spoke to a lawyer, who told him authorities would not be able to do that.
Police dropped by Thursday when about a dozen men in masks were lifting weights, spaced more than six feet apart in the 10,500-square-foot gym at the back of a strip mall cordoned off by police tape to signal that businesses were closed. The officers spoke to Uridel about his safety measures and then left. He was not cited.
Joseph Noland, 40, said he returned to the gym as soon as he got word it had reopened. The stay-at-home dad said it’s been vital to relieve stress, especially during the virus outbreak, and he feels safe at the gym.
“When you walk into the gym, everyone is washing their hands, which is something you never see at the grocery store,” Noland said. “This place is constantly being cleaned.”