Behind Gilded Social's Lawsuit Against Dr. Amy Acton

Emma Frankart Henterly

When we heard that Tanya Hartman, owner of bridesmaid gown shop Gilded Social in Downtown Columbus, had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton, challenging her orders to close nonessential businesses because of the COVID-19 crisis, we were surprised, to say the least. Acton and Gov. Mike DeWine have been widely lauded for their aggressive measures to fight the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, even as some protest the economic impact such measures have caused.

According to a press release from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a nonprofit legal center that is representing Hartman, the order violates the constitutional rights of owners of businesses deemed nonessential because they weren’t given an opportunity to challenge the criteria for what the state of Ohio considers essential, nor were they given the opportunity to demonstrate that they can operate safely, “even as many other businesses and operations not essential to survival have been exempted.” Those not-essential operations, the suit argues, include liquor, marijuana, dry cleaners and the state lottery. The suit asks for unspecified damages and expenses.

An article by the Columbus Dispatch (sister publication to Columbus Weddings) notes that the Ohio attorney general’s office did not have comment on the suit, which it had yet to review as of April 16.

We connected with Hartman via email on April 18 to learn more about her decision to file the suit.

If she had the opportunity, Hartman says, she would have argued that Gilded Social and other businesses like it are essential. “Celebrating love and the traditions surrounding marriage is essential to the fabric of our society and will be a key part in returning us to a ‘new’ normal way of life,” she says.

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“I am not in any way minimizing the grave health concerns that our state is facing,” she says. “Like everyone else, we closed our doors to protect the safety and well-being of our team and customers, not knowing what the future would hold for us financially.” But because her boutique operates on an appointment-only basis, Hartman says that it “without question [is] capable of operating safely as other ‘essential’ businesses have been able to.”

Instead, Gilded Social has shifted to a virtual appointment model that combines video chats with clients, direct-shipped samples and online ordering. It also is selling face masks created by designer Katie May, whose gowns Hartman carries in the shop. Hartman notes that keeping her staff, which she calls “the lifeblood” of her shop, employed has been her top priority.

“That said, at this point, the financial reality is that [virtual appointments are] not a replacement for our in-person sales,” Hartman says, noting that the virtual service and the small-business loans available through the federal CARES Act are not enough to keep the business running past May 1. “To be very clear, we are not trying to make anything over and above the basic costs of business and life right now. We’re just trying to make the math work to survive.”

January through April is the shop’s busiest season, she says, noting that her business depends on sales made during those months to provide cash flow for the rest of the year. “The loss of revenue from our busy season could devastate our ability to remain open long-term,” she says.

Hartman recognizes that many other retailers are facing similar struggles.

“This is absolutely not just about my shop,” she says. “I am doing this so all small businesses throughout Ohio have a chance to open in a safe manner as soon as possible.”

Editor's note: During a April 20 virtual court hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley declined to issue a temporary restraining order against Acton's nonessential business order. Marbley also set a May 11 hearing to make a more permanent ruling. On April 27, Gov. Mike DeWine announced a plan to reopen Ohio businesses; per that plan, retailers like Gilded Social and others are slated to reopen on May 12.

Hartman says, via email, that she and her staff "are energized and humbled by the support we have received" since filing the suit and are looking forward to reopening in May. She is not dropping the suit, however. "This was never just about my own shop," she says via text message. "Even though I have had good fortune recently, countless others have not, and I owe it to them to continue to be their voice through this case."