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Two Denver health-care workers watch anti-shutdown protesters near the Colorado State Capitol.EXPAND
Two Denver health-care workers watch anti-shutdown protesters near the Colorado State Capitol.
Chase Woodruff

Health-Care Workers Face Off Against Anti-Shutdown Protesters

Images of two Denver hospital workers who held a small, silent counter-protest to an anti-shutdown rally at the Colorado State Capitol this weekend are spreading across the world, becoming a potent symbol of health-care workers' courage during the coronavirus pandemic — and drawing widespread condemnation of the flag-waving rally-goers who hurled abuse at them from their cars.

Westword was on the scene Sunday afternoon when the two workers, who declined to give their names or the name of the hospital where they work, stood in the crosswalk at 12th and Grant Streets during red lights, in what they said was an effort to remind anti-shutdown protesters of why strict social-distancing measures are in place.

Hundreds of Coloradans had gathered at the Capitol a few blocks away, with hundreds more circling the area in their cars, bearing flags and banners and honking their horns in what organizers dubbed "Operation Gridlock," one of a wave of similar demonstrations in at least five states on Sunday.

Colorado House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican from Castle Rock, attended the protest, which also attracted fringe groups like the Proud Boys, several open-carry activists and "Cowboys for Trump." Demonstrators called for an end to Governor Jared Polis's statewide stay-at-home order, and displayed signs attacking the media, praising President Donald Trump and spreading anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

"It's really tough," said one of the health-care workers, a physician assistant who asked to be identified only by her nickname, Jo. "If they get sick, we're the ones that are going to take care of them."

Many of the anti-shutdown protesters shouted at the workers as they drove by. Images captured by photojournalist Alyson McClaran showed one man getting out of his car to confront them, while another demonstrator leaned out of her car to display a sign that read, "Show Me the Data."

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"Some people have said 'Thank you,' which is very confusing," Jo said. "But mostly people have been very aggressive. It's been overall pretty negative from people in the cars, but very nice from people in the street."

More than 40,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far, with case counts continuing to accelerate even as Trump and other conservatives begin to agitate for a "reopening" of the economy. Polis has targeted April 27 as the date that Colorodo's stay-at-home order could be lifted — though public-health experts have stressed that social-distancing measures will need to remain in place for the foreseeable future, and Denver officials cautioned last week that under a best-case scenario, many the city's restrictions will last for the next two to four months.

Jo and other workers on the front lines of the pandemic, along with state officials and public-health experts, say that the measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and minimize stress on the health-care system — and the people who work in it.

"I work every night," she said. "I work tonight, and I take care of patients inside the hospital, with and without COVID. It's catastrophic, and it's devastating."

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