MOUNT VERNON — A Mount Vernon man has been cited for operating his fitness center during the COVID-19 shutdown.
The owner, Dennis Bates, allegedly allowed customers to use the facility in late-April before gyms and other personal fitness venues were scheduled to reopen.
Bates, 55, Westerville, was charged in Mount Vernon Municipal Court with violation of public health rule, a second-degree misdemeanor which carries a penalty of up to $750 fine and 90 days in jail.
According to court records, two men were observed working out April 28 inside Bates’ gym, Pro Fitness USA, at night. When approached by Mount Vernon Police officers, the men said they were told by the owner that they could use the facility for “personal training sessions” as long as there were less than 10 people in the facility. The two were advised to leave the facility without incident, according to police reports.
In a follow-up conversation, law enforcement learned that Bates’ wife had allegedly given one of the customers verbal permission to use the gym. While there was no physical evidence of the conversation, the customer said he saw a “Phase 1” sign outside the gym and thought it was reopened, according to police reports.
The report noted that the officer took a picture of the sign. The picture is not included in the report obtained by the News.
Knox Public Health spokesperson Pam Palm said that a cease and desist letter was sent to Pro Fitness USA in early April at Health Commissioner Julie Miller’s request.
Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville said at least two letters have been sent out in the past months to other businesses as well.
McConville explained that the cease and desist letter was essentially a notice for the owner to “show cause” of why the business should remain open. One business — not Pro Fitness — that received the letter presented an argument about why it was an essential business and was permitted to continue its operations, McConville shared.
Palm said Bates never received any approval from KPH to operate any personal training sessions with less than 10 people.
For businesses not permitted to operate, Mount Vernon City Law Director’s Office will be the one to prosecute any violations, McConville said.
“At this time, we’ve only charged the owner,” City Law Director Rob Broeren said, regarding the Pro Fitness case.
As for the owner’s supposed claim that the customers could use the facility for personal training sessions with less than 10 people, Broeren said he was “not aware of any exceptions” to the health department order at the time of the violation.
Governor Mike DeWine announced the state’s reopening plan on April 27.
Gyms and other fitness venues were not included in the initial reopening schedule. Lt. Governor Jon Husted announced May 14 that fitness venues will be allowed to reopen on May 26.
Bates could not be reached for comment before press time. A recorded message on Pro Fitness USA’s answering machine described the venue as a “small mom and pop business” and a “club” with 24/7 membership access. The message, dated around the Easter holiday, does not state whether the facility is open to the public.
A sign was located outside of Pro Fitness USA that read “Gym Special Grand Open May 26 No Dues Til September” as of Monday.
Broeren said that he knew the police department has cited several individuals for violation of COVID-19 health orders, but he was not aware of other cases besides Pro Fitness USA that has come across his desk.
Two Fredericktown men were charged in Mount Vernon in early April for violating the stay-at-home order following a traffic stop. Both cases, along with the Pro Fitness USA case, are currently in the municipal court.
The decision on whether or not to bring charges to a case is made jointly between the police department and the law director’s office, according to Broeren.
“The bottom line is, the law director’s office is trying to work with everyone to keep everyone safe. That’s the first and foremost goal,” Broeren said.
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