Yoga Studio Allegedly Using Religious Exemption to Avoid COVID-19 Closures

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.

HauteYoga in Seattle
Newsweek editor visited HauteYoga in Seattle on New Year's Day to confirm that the studio was open despite the state's COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Naveed Jamali/Newsweek

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 operating under, Zaccaria said, "I am NOT claiming these are religious." However, she did not explain how she is able to remain open when other such businesses have been temporarily shut.

"This has been a lifeline for many, physically emotionally and spiritually. I'm teaching people how to breathe," she added. "That feels essential to me. I'm not trying to do any harm. I'm trying to help and support a community that I've been a part of for 13 years. I believe it's saving people's lives."

Washington state officials reported 4,425 additional coronavirus cases and 41 new deaths on Thursday. As of January 1, 2021, more than 250,000 people out of the state's estimated 7.6 million residents had tested positive for COVID-19, with over 3,550 deaths caused by the virus.

King County, home to HauteYoga, has been hit hardest in the state, with nearly 63,300 people having caught the virus and 1,091 deaths.

Update 1/1/2021 9:05 p.m. ET: This story has been amended to reflect that Washington state's COVID-19 guidelines have ben extended to January 11.