A local fitness center was fined last week by the county for allowing its members to exercise inside, a violation under Sonoma County’s urgency ordinance.
“We had about five or six people inside training with masks on, and a health inspector showed up, walked right in, and didn’t announce himself,” said Jenny Kovacs, co-owner of Sonoma Fit. Later they got a call that they were in violation of the health order and given a $1,000 citation.
Jon Lowden, the issuing inspector, told them that someone tipped off the county that they were operating indoors, Jenny said. Lowden didn’t respond to a request by press time to confirm that or relate whether other businesses in Sonoma have been cited, but county spokesperson Paul Gullixson, told the Press Democrat one other business was cited.
Jenny and Adam Kovacs said Lowden told them he saw one person not wearing a mask, but the couple checked their security video footage and said that isn’t true, everybody was wearing a mask the entire time.
The Kovacs’ said they’ve gotten conflicting information from the county about what and how they can operate while under the purple tier designation – the most restrictive of the state’s four colored tiers — that Sonoma County is stuck in. They have been operating classes and moved some equipment outside, but it was the indoor activity that warranted the fine.
A second violation is subject to a $5,000 fine and subsequent violations could be fined $10,000, according to the Sonoma County website.
“We have a physical therapy office 200 yards from us doing the exact same thing we’re doing, but because they’re associated with medical” conditions, they are allowed to be open, Jenny said.
The Kovacs said they have members, some elderly, who rely on them for physical therapy needs and everyone is properly masked and distanced. Other members are trying to stay or get fit and healthy, they said. Some feel isolated and lonely and going to the gym is therapeutic for them. That should make gyms and fitness centers an essential business, they argue.
“We’re doing this for the right reasons. We’re not crazy anti-mask people,” Jenny said. “We are good people who care about our members and care about our community from a health standpoint. We’re not doing this to be reckless. We’re not doing this to be selfish. We believe in what we do. It’s the reason we are gym owners, and why I’ve taught for 10 years. It’s about how exercise benefits not just the body, but the mind.”
First responders are members and tell the Kovacs that they really need the workouts to relieve stress.
They plan to appeal the citation and are still hoping the state changes its criteria for gyms to operate inside.
They own and operate three fitness centers – one each in Sonoma, Petaluma and Novato – and all are brand new or fairly new with state-of-the art HVAC systems that exchange 35 tons of fresh air in their facilities.
“The air you’re breathing in our gym is better than in most homes,” Adam said.
Sanitation and safety protocols and practices are “above CDC guidelines,” Jenny said.
It frustrates and infuriates the couple that they cannot open an indoor health facility with everyone wearing masks and separated at more than the recommended six-foot distance, but restaurants can operate where people sit close to one another opening their mouths for eating and talking.
The state updated its guidelines for personal care services allowing tattoos and facials, for example, to operate indoors. Facials, in particular, don’t make sense to the Kovacs, they said. The person receiving the facial cannot wear a mask, and the person giving the facial must get closer than six-feet. How can a facial be “essential,” but exercising is not, Jenny questions.
“It’s not even about the fine…you’re telling me to my face that you (gyms) are a threat to public health while friends of ours can go and get a facial,” Jenny said.
But, Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, has said that exercising increases respiratory rates, and limiting activities that cause heavy breathing is among the guidelines in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
The couple’s Novato gym re-opened in early September and Adam said there have been more than 8,000 check-ins by members there, “and not one COVID case” out of that.
That one business being open at limited capacity cannot sustain the others, he said.
They applied for a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, and applied for a small business loan. They received the PPP loan and were denied the small business loan because they are not open.
“We feel like the county is not helping us…we’re desperate,” Jenny said. “If you are going to close a business for the better part of a year, you better support that business financially.”
“Everything we worked for our entire lives is gone. We have five kids, what are we supposed to do?”
Adam said they applied for a $1.7 million loan “to pay all the bills” of their “six thriving businesses,” but then “COVID made an appearance” and the bank denied the loan. “Now, on top of it I cannot pay multiple contractors. I have to pass on the problem,” he said.
The couple argues that gyms can be operated safely and that there is no evidence that any COVID cases have been traced to a fitness center, but restaurants and public gatherings have proven to be places where transmission occurs. Still, they are in a position to provide contact tracing information.
“Our gyms are uniquely equipped to support the county’s efforts to contact trace. Our database, designed and hosted by ABC Financial, allows us to track who was in the gym and at what time, to the minute,” Adam said.
Contact Anne at [email protected]