OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced consumer protection lawsuits against two gyms that continue to operate in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation. Both business owners have received multiple warnings that, by continuing to operate, they were endangering public health. In addition, they are engaging in an unfair business practice while their competitors remain closed. Consequently, the gyms are gaining an unfair advantage over their competitors who are complying with the proclamation, which violates the Consumer Protection Act.
Ferguson has given both businesses one final opportunity to avoid monetary penalties. The Attorney General’s Office attached a cover letter to the two lawsuits filed in Pierce County Superior Court (click for complaint and cover letter) and Snohomish County Superior Court (click for complaint and cover letter). Ferguson’s letter informs both businesses that the state will not seek monetary penalties if the businesses close within 24 hours. If the businesses refuse to close, the state will seek monetary penalties as well as the costs and fees of bringing the actions.
The business owners, Michael J. Baker and Shane D. Cowhig of Fitness 101 Team Puyallup, more commonly known as Northwest Fitness Co., and Michael and Richard Jellison of Power Alley Fitness, more commonly known as PA Fitness, in Arlington, received multiple warnings about remaining open. On Friday, both businesses received cease and desist letters as final warnings to cease operating within 48 hours or face a lawsuit. (Click here for Northwest Fitness Co.’s letter, and here for PA Fitness’ letter)
“We understand the financial impact of Stay Home, Stay Health on small businesses, but that does not exempt you from the requirement to remain closed,” the letters read. “The Stay Home, Stay Health order is necessary for public health. The COVID-19 virus spreads easily from person to person and the only way to control it, and save lives, is to maintain social distancing, including closing nonessential businesses. By keeping your business open, you are endangering the lives of your customers and your community.
“It is also unfair to your competitors for you to be open for business while they are complying with the Proclamation and making sacrifices for the benefit of the community. Opening your business when competing fitness centers have closed as required by law to protect the health of all Washingtonians gives you an unfair advantage over your competitors. In order to level the playing field and ensure the market is fair for all, you must close your doors.”
Despite these warnings, the businesses continue to operate. As a result, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit late yesterday against each business and their owners.
A court can impose monetary penalties of up to $2,000 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
These consumer protection lawsuits to enforce the Governor’s order are civil actions, and do not preclude criminal charges by local prosecutors if warranted. The Attorney General’s Office does not have original criminal jurisdiction.
In addition to the state’s lawsuit, the City of Arlington notified PA Fitness owners in the form of a letter sent May 14 that, because they are operating unlawfully, the city has the right to revoke their business license, impose daily penalties, seek a court order to stop their operation, and refer the case for criminal prosecution. The city also offered to assist the owners in accessing relief programs and education about how to re-open when it is safe to do so.
Complaints about nonessential businesses operating in violation of the Governor’s order are submitted via coronavirus.wa.gov, maintained by the state Joint Information Center. Those complaints then go through a process of warnings, administrative enforcement, and referral to law enforcement as appropriate. More information on that process is available here.
If the business continues to violate the Governor’s order, the complaint is then forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office for review and possible civil action. To date, the Attorney General’s Office has received four complaints about businesses.
This process differs from other types of coronavirus-related complaints, such as price gouging or violations of the Governor’s eviction moratorium. These complaints are submitted directly to the Attorney General’s Office.
More COVID-19 information
Information on Washington’s COVID-19 response is centralized on coronavirus.wa.gov. Businesses can request inclusion as an essential business here. Individuals can report businesses operating in violation of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order can file a report here. These reports can be submitted anonymously. More information about what businesses are open, and what is still prohibited under the Governor’s order, is available here.
More information on Washington’s phased “Safe Start” plan for reopening is available here.