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Gym users forgo masks while working out Thursday night, Nov. 19, 2020, at Anytime Fitness, La Grande. The gym’s owner is disregarding Gov. Kate Brown’s orders to shut down for two weeks to help ebb the spike in the spread of COVID-19.

LA GRANDE — Anytime Fitness in La Grande is refusing to abide by state efforts to curtail the unprecedented spread of COVID-19, which claimed the life of its 800th Oregonian on Thursday, Nov. 19.

The fitness center has not closed its doors to comply with the “two-week freeze,” which began Wednesday.

“If you’re a member, you have access to the gym,” Anytime Fitness manager Lynette Williamson said. “We are taking our chance. We’re gonna remain open until something happens. We just decided we can’t afford to do another shutdown and, you know, we can’t have the members be set back in their workouts. We believe that we’re essential and we have no contact tracing out of here, we have no cases coming out of our facility, so we’re just going to remain open.”

Williamson also said Anytime Fitness is not enforcing the wearing of masks, instead leaving the choice to its members.

“No, we’re not requiring that,” she said. “We’ve got disinfectant, everybody’s kind of distant. Everybody’s socially distanced, yeah. But if you feel comfortable wearing one, that’s cool too.”

At least six males were using the gym for a span Thursday evening, none were wearing masks. They also were not staying at least 6 feet apart, the minimum social distance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities recommend.

Cases continue to rise

Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday signed Executive Order 20-65 to implement closures and restrictions on gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19 in light of hospitals “sounding the alarm” they could be overwhelmed if cases continue on their upward trend.

“The cycle of this virus is such that if we are seeing case rates topping 800-1,000 per day now, that means our hospitals are headed for very dark days ahead,” the executive order states. “Actions taken now will help prevent lives from being lost — not just from COVID-19, but also from other diseases or accidents that lead people to need hospital-level care, which they would not be able to get if hospital beds and hospital staff are fully occupied with COVID-19 patients.”

The number of new and presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Oregon set another one-day record Friday with 1,306, while the day before also was the single deadliest in Oregon for reported deaths from the virus with 20.

Locally, the Center for Human Development, La Grande, announced 17 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing the county’s six-day total to 76, and the total since the start of the pandemic to 655.

“Taking risk reduction measures today is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 to keep those in our community that are more vulnerable to serious illness and death safe and to helping maintain hospital capacity so that all Oregonians can continue to have access to quality care,” CHD stated in the announcement.

The executive order lists facilities that must close during the two-week freeze, including “gyms and fitness organizations,” but does not go into detail about the definition of a gym.

Other gyms disregard the freeze

Anytime Fitness is not the only gym in the region disregarding the freeze. A trio of gyms in Umatilla County are taking unique steps to stay open.

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The Club 24 in Pendleton, as well as those in other parts of Oregon and Washington, is turning over control of its facility to Tawtnuk Wellness Institute, which will operate the gyms as “wellness clinics,” as a means of staying open safely during the pandemic.

Club 24, which owns locations in Hermiston and Pendleton, notified members that during the shutdown it will turn over control of its facilities to Tawtnuk Wellness Institute, which will operate the gyms as “wellness clinics.” Hermiston Athletic Club in Hermiston posted a similar message on its Facebook page.

The website for Tawtnuk Wellness Institute describes the institute as fulfilling “the holistic wellness of all communities by converting health clubs, gyms, and fitness centers to wellness facilities” and offers two links, one to an intake form for Club 24 and one for Hermiston Athletic Club. It lists Orien Fiander, who has in the past described himself as the CEO of Club 24 and owner of Hermiston Athletic Club, as its owner and CEO.

According to information on the Club 24 website, members of its gyms in Oregon and Washington will be able to work out on-site during the shutdown if they bring a doctor’s note prescribing exercise or if they fill out an intake form for Tawtnuk Wellness Institute. Tawtnuk will conduct a temperature screening at the door, require sign-ins for contact tracing purposes, conduct “enhanced cleaning protocols” and require masks at all times. Some amenities, such as showers and saunas, will be closed.

“Overall, the look and feel should be close to what you are used to when it comes to Club 24 facilities with direct changes that will only make our facilities cleaner in order to allow you to keep improving your health,” an email to members stated.

The email also outlined the financial difficulties Club 24 has faced this year, through shutdowns when Umatilla County was in baseline or Phase 1, and through people canceling their memberships.

“Cherished colleagues had to find new jobs because other businesses were able to be open when we were not,” the email stated.

Those concerns echoed other complaints that gyms in Oregon have made during the latest shutdown. The Statesman Journal reported Courthouse Club Fitness in Salem was staying open in defiance of the governor’s executive order, quoting a statement from owner John Miller: “As a result of the harm done to our business from the first shutdown, we will not survive another closure.” The article claimed other gyms in Salem indicated they also were considering staying open.

Police emphasize education

Brown has said she expected law enforcement to take an “education first approach” to noncompliance, but the rules under the two-week freeze were enforceable under the law. La Grande police emphasizes education over citations.

La Grande police Lt. Jason Hays in an email stated, “In regards to Anytime Fitness or any business in La Grande who is in violation of the Governor’s executive orders or COVID related restrictions, the La Grande Police Department will continue to educate the business owners on the fluctuating rules in an effort to assist them with compliancy. COVID related violations that occur in a business fall under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration.”

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Gym users work out without masks Thursday night, Nov. 19, 2020, at Anytime Fitness, La Grande, which is remaining open despite Gov. Kate Brown’s orders to shutdown for two weeks to help ebb the spike in the spread of COVID-19.

Hays also said Police Chief Gary Bell talked to the owner of Anytime Fitness just prior to the freeze and educated him on the governor’s directives for the impending freeze. Hays also reported that Anytime Fitness’s remaining open under the freeze orders has been referred to OSHA.

Oregon OSHA has conducted much of the enforcement of Brown’s orders in regard to business operations during the pandemic. Spokesperson Aaron Corvin said “willful violations” have resulted in citations.

“Oregon OSHA would have to evaluate a situation and let the facts drive what we do,” Corvin said. “I would say ... on its face, if you have a business that is defying, openly disregarding these restrictions, you would have a situation where they’re doing it willfully, and at OSHA we have issued citations for willful violations for employers who violate the restrictions.”

Still, he stressed, OSHA would have to determine the facts about what is happening at Anytime Fitness, “but on its face, that is a willful disregard for the requirements to maintain a safe and healthy workplace for workers.”

Corvin also said if someone makes a complaint about a business not following COVID-19 mandates, OSHA looks into the complaint. Sometimes the agency can work with the business owner to “satisfactorily” resolve the complaint without opening a formal enforcement process, he said, while other times the agency might end up issuing fines and other penalties.

Oregon OSHA’s basic expectation is businesses follow the restrictions, he said, including as they apply under the two-week freeze.

La Grande police also stated anyone who notices a business violating COVID-19 safety measures could file a report with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

To file a complaint online, visit: https://osha.oregon.gov/workers/Pages/index.aspx.

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Vehicles fill the parking spaces Thursday night, Nov. 19, 2020, in front of Anytime Fitness, La Grande. The gym’s owner is disregarding Gov. Kate Brown’s orders to shut down for two weeks to help ebb the spike in the spread of COVID-19.

Reporter

Newest reporter with the La Grande Observer and Union County native. Coverage includes COVID-19, news stories, sports, business and community issues.

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