Judge Rules in State Case Judge Rules in State Case

State’s COVID-19 restrictions passed their first legal test Thursday.

FAIRFAX-Will Virginia’s COVID-19 restrictions hold up in a courtroom? We got an answer to that question Thursday, as Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Brett Kassabian rejected the first challenge against them. 

Typically, the Nation’s Gun Show runs around Thanksgiving in the Dulles Expo Center, with roughly 25,000 people showing up. This year, that meant Nov. 20 to Nov. 22. But after Gov. Northam announced new restrictions Nov. 13 that limited indoor gatherings to 25 people, organizers said they couldn’t afford to keep the show going under those conditions. Instead, earlier this week the show’s promoter Showmasters, event vendor Sonny’s Guns and potential attendee John Crump filed a joint lawsuit, arguing the event should be exempt from Northam’s order. Under Northam’s order, the gathering limit doesn’t apply to brick and mortar businesses. The group’s lawyers didn’t see the difference between their one weekend event and a brick and mortar business. 

“We don’t take issue [with the order],” lawyer David Browne told the court Thursday. “[But] why should the Nation’s Gun Show be treated differently than the WalMart next door?” 

The reason, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in his response, has to do with the location. The Dulles Expo Center hosts events throughout the year. 

“[But] when events are not in session, however, the Dulles Expo Center sells nothing,” Herring wrote. “For that reason, the Center cannot possibly be a ‘Brick and Mortar Retail Business.’ Rather, the Center is properly characterized as an entertainment venue—one that, like a concert or sports venue, brings large numbers of people together at regular intervals for public events.” 

A Financial Argument

The issue for Richmond-based Sonny’s Guns & Transfers was a financial one. According to the lawsuit, Sonny’s makes more than 90% of its income from selling inventory at gun shows. 

“In preparation for The Nation’s Gun Show this weekend, Sonny’s has expended significant funds to purchase firearm and ammunition inventory to sell at the show,” the lawsuit stated. “Sonny’s estimates that, if The Nation’s Gun Show is canceled this weekend, the business will lose out on $60,000 to $70,000 in gross sales.”

The group also argued this would have been beneficial for the entire area. They estimated a typical gun show generates between $20 to $25 million, in terms of economic impact.  

“However, in recent months, the demand for firearms, ammunition, and related products and services has skyrocketed, fueled by intersecting scares over COVID-19 and interruptions in government-related services including policing, fears of demonstrations, rioting and social unrest purportedly in response to various police shootings, and a general sense of apprehension about the November 2020 presidential election and the future for gun rights in this country,” the lawsuit stated. 

The group’s lawyers argued this gave an opportunity for the event hosts, vendors and participants to benefit. They promised to wear masks, employ social distancing and follow other requirements, if they could just lift the gathering limit. 

A Health Issue

That’s the problem, Judge Kassabian wrote in his ruling. The focus appears to be on profit, which is a personal benefit, rather than the public interest. He pointed to the fact that Virginia is “in the throes of a national pandemic we have not seen in over 100 years.” 

Even with precautions, Kassabian wrote, a person can spread the virus without showing symptoms. As of Thursday, Virginia reported 210, 787 overall cases, with 13,815 hospitalizations and 3,896 deaths. Fairfax County, where the show would have been held, currently ranks first in terms of cases. Since March, the county’s reported 27,475 cases with 612 deaths. The local district’s schools, which were set to return to in-person learning this week, announced they would remain remote for the foreseeable future. 

Knowing that, Kassabian wrote, it’s not in the public interest to let the Fairfax show move forward. There’s too much risk for it to become a superspreader event. While Kassabian sympathized for the vendors who already spent money, there is a bigger issue. The Commonwealth is in the midst of a spike, with numbers growing every day. 

“The injunction is not in the public interest,” Kassabian wrote. “I find that it is in the private interest of the plaintiffs. To allow thousands to roam unchecked during the middle of the most serious health crisis this country has suffered in the past one hundred years is not in the public interest.”

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@couriernewsroom.com.