Forced to fail: How Michigan’s lockdowns ruined an Oxford gym
One in three Michigan businesses faced a government-ordered closure in 2020, and some never recovered.
If Kelly Rickabus, age 60, had owned a gym in Oxford Township rather than the Village of Oxford, she would probably still be in business right now.
“We feel very much like the government forced us to fail by shutting us down and then left us, and didn’t help us,” Rickabus told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “And we have reached out to everyone from the president all the way to our local government. We’ve tried every avenue we can think of, and the doors just keep shutting in our face.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders went out, gyms were on the list of “non-essential” businesses. Police in the village were going to enforce the governor’s orders, and Rickabus owned an Anytime Fitness franchise there.
In the township, the police agency is the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. Its leader, Sheriff Michael Bouchard, said early on in the pandemic that there wouldn’t be arrests for violating lockdown orders in territories his agency patrolled.
In the Village of Oxford, enforcement was the plan. But it never came to that, village Police Chief Michael Solwold told Michigan Capitol Confidential. The agency did not write a single COVID enforcement ticket in 2020. To this, he attributes community compliance.
And for that compliance, Rickabus credits an early message from village police: If your business is open during the shutdowns, we will eventually write tickets and send cases to the prosecutor’s office. Solwold didn’t recall that conversation specifically, but said that’s the message police would have conveyed.
"My attitude is, ‘Help me help you avoid a violation,’” Solwold told CapCon. “We never had to go that route, thankfully. Nobody really wanted to go that route.”
“We don’t make the laws,” Solwold added. “We enforce them. If my village manager or my governor or whoever’s in charge comes down and says, ‘Hey, you need to do this,’ well, then we’re going to do it. But we’re going to do it my way.”
His way, Solwold said, was not to write tickets. Not right away. And as it turns out, not at all.
As Rickabus sees it, however, compliance in the village was rooted in fear — a fear that wouldn’t exist in the absence of shutdown order and the stated threat of its enforcement. Setting up shop on the wrong side of the village line proved costly to her business.
Ted Rickabus, Kelly’s husband, also 60, wrote in The Detroit News, “Six months went by and none of my creditors provided any relief. Not (Anytime Fitness), nor the landlord, nor the power company, nor any other creditors. They all demanded their money.”
By the time the business did reopen, it had lost most of its members, and much of its staff. He was forced to sell.
Kelly Rickabus argues that Michigan gyms should have been enlisted as part of the solution during COVID, not treated as a problem and forced to shut down.
“We should have been deemed essential,” Rickabus said of gyms, in a pandemic where the obese and the elderly were especially hard hit.
Roughly one in three Michigan businesses — 32% — reported facing a government-mandated closure in 2020 due to COVID-19. It was by far the highest total in America. The national average was about 19%.
Some of those businesses never recovered.
The Rickabus family eventually left Oakland County for the Big Rapids area. Rather than settling into retirement with a revenue-generating business, the former gym owners pay the bills by buying and selling furniture, and working odd jobs, Kelly said.
“It’s really hard, at our age, to start over,” Rickabus said. “Nobody wants to hire us.”
Rickabus admits that the family is probably a GoFundMe campaign away from clearing its debts, including a $150,000 injury-disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. But she won’t do it.
“I’m not a charity case,” Rickabus said. “I work hard for my money; I’ve been working since I was 14. It was my choice to buy the gym. And for me to say ‘Give me some of your money, to make up for my choices,’ it wouldn’t feel right.”
James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at email@example.com.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.