Opinion: Daily Journal

On gyms, bars, and protests: Which is it, governor?

(CJ photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ photo by Kari Travis)

Which is it, Gov. Roy Cooper?

People are more important than property, Cooper tweeted. His backdrop was violence, the riots and looting of downtown Raleigh and other N.C. cities. The brutal killing of George Floyd should be met with protests, demonstrations, and demands for change. Violence and looting have no place in this.

Each Tuesday after the suppression orders, people have gathered in Raleigh to protest the governor’s lockdown. They weren’t violent. The protesters simply wanted to return to work, to reopen their businesses. To attend church.

Cooper — before backtracking — had said “mass gatherings” were illegal under his orders. He’s clear, though, in his full support for unmasked protestors and those types of mass gatherings, which at times turned violent and sickeningly destructive.

Which is it, governor?

Cooper, in a news conference Tuesday, June 2, reiterated his support for the protests but also made clear the state isn’t close to moving into Phase Three of his lockdown orders, meaning bars — he’ll probably veto a bill throwing them a lifeline — and gyms will stay closed.

So, Cooper is effectively turning his head from the broken windows of the downtown YMCA, from the ugly scars left on our cities by the violent rioters and looters. Yet, to protect me and the rest of us from ourselves, Cooper deems gyms and fitness facilities too dangerous to reopen. 

Which is it, governor?

Cooper has little new to say about when he may end the suppression, and refers to the start of Phrase Three in almost mythical terms. He’s pedantic in his rhetoric, unapologetic in his decisions, which he attributes to some yet-to-be-explained “science.” He recites the elementary and now-ubiquitous three Ws, which are starting to sound silly. 

The governor talks about keeping people healthy, but gyms, under his orders, remain closed. States around the country have reopened gyms and fitness centers — mostly those with Republican governors — citing the role they play in keeping people physically and mentally fit. Gym owners throughout North Carolina continue to say as much. Some have defied his orders and others have filed lawsuits, which are pending.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, says gyms are dangerous because people are breathing more heavily and intensely and, COVID-19 being a viral respiratory pathogen, droplets from people’s mouths and noses are projected with increased force, so they travel further.

But wouldn’t a mask thwart the projectiles? Wouldn’t spacing machines six feet apart — oh, like restaurant tables — mitigate potential spread of the virus? Washing, wearing, waiting … all of that? People depend on gyms, because working out, for many, is part of who they are. It’s about staying healthy, of course, but it’s also about maintaining focus, a commitment to a goal, a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Isn’t mental and physical health more important now than — heck, I don’t know — ever?

All of that, I’ll even argue, is tangential to the economic harm inflicted on the people who own these gyms and fitness centers, the instructors, the trainers, the people who work the counters. This virus, from what we’ve learned, attacks the elderly and the medically vulnerable, and we should do all we can to protect them. 

As it stands, though, Cooper is punishing the healthy, and those of us who want to stay that way.

Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, has introduced a bill — a proposed committee substitute for House Bill 594 — that, a news release says, would follow the lead of every state bordering North Carolina by permitting gyms to reopen at limited capacity and with strict rules. Another bill from Gunn, allowing restaurants and bars to operate outdoors at 50% capacity, is on Cooper’s desk. He has signaled a veto.

“It’s time to let people get healthy again by allowing them to exercise at the gym,” Gunn says in the release. “Governor Cooper walked with a throng of protesters without wearing a mask; it defies logic that after doing that, he would continue prohibiting people from exercising alone or sitting at an outdoor table to have a socially distanced drink.”

A coalition of fitness club operators, calling themselves the Fitness Operators for Responsible Reopening, applauded Gunn for the legislation, which would safely reopen fitness centers for our 600,000 members and 5,000 employees in North Carolina, a news release says. The group, along with health experts and industry leaders, says it developed a 14-step plan for responsibly reopening facilities across the state. “With the added stress of the pandemic, exercise is more important now than ever for the physical and mental well-being of our communities.”

Nail and hair salons have opened in North Carolina. Tattoo parlors, too. Places, apparently, where people don’t breathe heavily. 

What’s the endgame, sir? This coronavirus is here to stay, and we’ve got to find a way to co-exist. Is the goal really to keep North Carolinians healthy, to prevent hospitals from being overrun, at the same time accepting that a ruined economy is just so much collateral damage? Or does Cooper have a deeper political agenda, one that plays to his followers while purposely alienating those who refuse to get in step? Just to make a point.

Which is it, governor?