Sonoma County levied a $1,000 fine this week on a fitness center in Sonoma for operating indoors in violation of local and state public health rules during the ongoing pandemic.
A code enforcement inspector visited Sonoma Fit gym on Highway 12 on Tuesday and issued only the second such fine against a local business for flouting virus-related restrictions.
Adam Kovacs, who owns the gym along with fitness centers in Petaluma and Novato, was outraged by the penalty and said he plans to appeal it.
“It’s absolutely wrong,” he said Friday of the violation and fine. “If you follow Sonoma Fit, we’re all about taking this virus very seriously. My wife (Jennifer) and I built this gym, we’re very active in the fitness community.”
When the state this week lifted emergency pandemic restrictions on personal care services businesses, such as nail salons and massage and tattoo studios, Kovacs figured there’d be no problem allowing members to come inside to work out in his Sonoma fitness center.
“We figured personal training is a personal service; it’s an absolutely essential service,” he said.
Since Sonoma County remains mired in the bottom tier of the state’s four-part community reopening plan, local fitness centers only can conduct exercise activities outdoors. Indoor gym operations still are banned across the county, until coronavirus transmission is reduced from a widespread level.
Kovacs said he tried to argue his point with the code inspector that gyms are no less safe than hair salons, restaurants and massage studios. At the time, only five members were in the 16,000-square-foot fitness center, he said, wondering what other business has that kind of social distancing.
“Gyms are not a threat to public health,” he said. “I’m the only business that can operate safely.”
Paul Gullixson, a county spokesman, said Kovacs understood the law and the fine was issued only after he made it clear that he would not “remedy the matter.”
“Our code enforcement officers have discretion,” Gullixson said. “They went out there. It was clear they knew what the rules were. It was a flagrant violation. … He was very defiant.”
For Kovacs, who said he will continue to operate the gym, that’s not good enough. “I don’t want to hear about this being the law,” he said. “What kind of message are you sending to people? You cannot go the gym, but you can get a tattoo or a facial?”
On Friday, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said transmission of the virus may be possible in fitness centers due to people’s increased respiratory rate brought on by exercise.
“If you’re asthmatic or something and you have underlying … conditions, maybe even COVID, potentially you could have a bout of coughing or something that could lead to transmission,” Mase said.
Regarding the public health emergency rules, she said all virus-related restrictions on businesses are established by the state, and the county’s local rules are aligned with them. That includes for now precluding indoor activities at gyms in California counties, such as Sonoma, where the virus is spreading widely.
Gullixson said the only other $1,000 fine the county has levied against a local business was to a car shop, but he did not have the details Friday about that violation. County citations and fines are issued for violations in unincorporated areas. Some cities across the county handle their local public health enforcement, including potential punitive action, he said.
County code enforcement officials investigate, after residents call a hotline to report suspected violations of COVID-19-related public health orders. A daily average of 20 calls are made to the hotline. That average has declined since county officials started the tip line in early August, and received 450 tips in the first three days.
The hotline was part of a move by Sonoma County supervisors to give civil authorities the power to issue administrative fines to people and businesses for violations of public health rules during the pandemic.
The idea was to “educate people and over time we would draw the line and get tougher,” Gullixson said.
Kovacs experienced the county’s tougher enforcement posture.
“I’m in the red, bleeding,” he said, of his company’s finances. “I’m dying and now you’re adding a $1,000 fine.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.