A Washington state yoga studio is allegedly claiming religious exemption to hold in-person classes despite Governor Jay Inslee’s temporary restrictions on businesses including gyms and fitness centers amid the worsening pandemic.
Leah Zaccaria, owner of HauteYoga in Queen Anne Seattle, confirmed to Newsweek that she “recently just started holding in-person classes,” and insisted that her business is a “spiritual practice.” The studio’s website also indicates that the business is currently open, with bookings available throughout the week.
“I hold 6 person classes that are social distanced wearing masks, taking temperatures and do not share any equipment. We use air purifiers with HEPA filters and open the doors for ventilation. I believe it’s safer than going to the grocery store,” Zaccaria said.
The King County Public Health Department told Newsweek that the county follows state guidance on faith based organizations. Under the state’s COVID-19 guidance, fitness centers and gyms are closed for indoor operations until January 11, but in-person religious services are limited to 25 percent indoor capacity or 200 people in King County, whichever is less, with social distancing and face coverings required.
Cheri Cornell, a Queen Anne, Seattle resident, noticed that HauteYoga was open on Wednesday after seeing a large class of students exiting the premise. In a post shared to Nextdoor, a social networking service for neighborhoods, Cornell described an interaction with a staff member, who told her the studio was under religious exemption.
“So I opened the door and asked the receptionist, ‘Hey, are small gyms allowed to open now?’” Cornell recounted. “Oh no,’ [the receptionist] says, ‘we’re not a gym. We’re now a religious center and church. We’re not subject to the same rules as other yoga centers and gyms.’”
Asked by Newsweek whether HauteYoga could pass as a “religious service,” Ginny Streeter, a spokesperson for the WA State Department of Health, indicated that their enforcement teams will look into the studio on Monday to gather information before releasing a statement.
“This is something that I need to look into with our Guidance and Enforcement teams, and they are not in the office today,” Streeter said. “The broad definition of a religious service would be tied to churches, synagogues, mosques etc., however without knowing all of the details about this specific situation, we cannot make a comment at this time.”
In an email to Newsweek on Friday afternoon, Zaccaria denied that her business was a church, and insisted that the receptionist—whom she referred to as a “teacher”—told Cornell that HauteYoga was a “spiritual” practice. “That person has now somehow spun it to say we are calling ourselves a church,” Zaccaria said.
Pressed to explain what exemption HauteYoga was…