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Judge orders $1,500 in fines
Operators of a Ventura gym willfully disobeyed a preliminary injunction ordering them to close indoor operations and follow COVID-19 restrictions, a judge ruled Thursday.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh placed BSF Fitness Center in contempt of court and ordered $1,500 in fines.
“They were doing it intentionally. It was willful. It wasn’t accidental,” said Walsh.
He fined the gym $500 a day for three days in early September when prosecutors said the gym remained open indoors despite a Sept. 4 preliminary injunction.
Enforcement of the fines and $1,032 in attorney fees will be delayed pending an Oct. 20 hearing involving the gym’s legal challenge of the complaint filed by prosecutors in August.
The hearing was limited to gym activities on Sept. 8-10. Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Reid said the gym continues to defy the order by remaining open indoors.
“What the people are alleging is an ongoing repeating daily violation,” he said.
State and county public health orders mandate churches, gyms, restaurants and other entities operate only outside in Ventura County in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
BSF co-owners Josh and Lindsey Cohn were not in court Thursday. They said previously they closed when the pandemic emerged but reopened because their members desperately wanted to resume their fitness work.
Lindsey Cohn has said the gym is fighting the virus by helping people with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID.
Lawyer James Armstrong argued the gym was complying with the preliminary injunction by modifying its operations, referencing changes like a fence used to allow for outdoor fitness. At an earlier hearing, the Cohns talked about other alterations like keeping a large roll-up door open at the gym.
Read More: Preliminary injunction ordered to shut down indoor operations at Ventura gym
The modifications mean that what prosecutors allege are violations are not, said Armstrong.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh placed BSF Fitness Center in Ventura in contempt of court Thursday for disobeying a preliminary injunction. (Photo: TOM KISKEN/THE STAR)
Jonathan Witkosky, a district attorney’s investigator, testified he monitored the gym from outside on the three September days in question and saw people working out indoors.
“I observed people working out, using gym equipment inside the facility and no one was wearing masks,” he said of one visit.
Armstrong argued cellphone photos taken by Witkosky from his vehicle don’t clearly show any violations. He questioned whether a person in the photo was actually working out and whether cars in the parking lot belonged to BSF or neighboring businesses.
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Walsh said Armstrong’s analysis of the photos was interesting but also a “smoke screen,” suggesting he was persuaded by Witkosky’s eye witness testimony.
“There is an order that was issued that they didn’t comply with,” he said of the gym operators.
In court documents, prosecutors said contempt of court findings can also bring up to five days of jail but said they were not asking for that penalty. Walsh said the same thing.
“I will say at this point I’m not motivated to put anyone in jail, at least not yet,” he said.
Part of the hearing focused on dates. Walsh said he could only rule on the gym’s actions on Sept. 8-10 because those are the three days specified in a document submitted by the prosecutors.
He left the door open for prosecutors to present other alleged violations of the preliminary injunction in court proceedings on Oct. 20.
The status of gyms could change by then. In the state’s four-tiered system, Ventura County is currently in in the lowest step — purple — meaning COVID transmission risks are believed to be widespread.
Related: State leader says Ventura County’s COVID restrictions will not ease despite requests
More: Ventura gym owners pledge to stay open indoors; injunction hearing rescheduled
But county officials say improving COVID metrics mean the region is on the cusp of meeting benchmarks for the next tier. If the county hits and then maintains the measurements for two consecutive weeks, it will move into the red tier.
In that tier, places of worship, restaurants and other businesses are allowed to operate indoors with restrictions. Gyms can move indoors in the red tier but can only operate at 10% of capacity.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at [email protected] or 805-437-0255.
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