An empty fitness center. Photo via Pixabay

A federal judge Thursday denied a request from 25 San Diego County gyms and fitness centers that sued to resume indoor operations despite COVID-19 restrictions.

Like other, similar lawsuits challenging pandemic restrictions, the gyms argued in their suit against the state and San Diego County that public health officials have arbitrarily considered some sectors essential.

But “gyms and fitness centers, places where people go to maintain and improve their physical and mental health, have been deemed `non-essential,”‘ according to the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bencivengo issued her ruling during a virtual court hearing, which stemmed from the suit filed late last year.

It was unclear whether the gyms would file an appeal.

Charlotte Najar, representing the gyms, argued that the restrictions represented free speech violations. Conduct by gym-goers, she said, was similar to the expression of others, such as dancers at live entertainment establishments.

Najar said the gyms could reopen safely with COVID-19 protocols in place, such as limited capacity and mask mandates.

During the afternoon hearing, Bencivengo rejected the free speech argument. She added that the gyms had not shown that the balance of public interests favored the plaintiffs.

“California has a compelling interest in reducing the community spread of COVID-19,” Bencivengo said.

She cited a separate ruling in a similar case by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Francisco to support her ruling.

“Challenging COVID-related restrictions, given the unique risks of gatherings and spreading COVID-19, the deaths and serious illnesses that result from COVID-19, and the overwhelming strain on the health system, the court finds that enjoining the state and county’s restrictions on plaintiffs’ gatherings and plaintiffs’ businesses would not be in the public’s interest,” the judge said.

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