Governor Jared Polis has been talking tough about businesses that refuse to comply with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. Thus far, however, he hasn't ordered a major crackdown on scofflaws, preferring instead to rely on admonitions delivered from his bully pulpit.
That's not good enough for Colorado COVID Watch, a new project whose online platforms include a Facebook page, a Facebook group and a Twitter account. The advocacy group, which has been calling out retailers and other operations that it contends aren't following the rules, has launched a petition titled "State of Colorado Must Enforce COVID-19 Public Health Orders on 'SuperSpreader' Businesses," demanding that Polis, who announced this past weekend that he's tested positive for the disease, forgo lip service and get serious about either disciplining or shutting down outfits that refuse to follow practices intended to get the pandemic under control in the state.
"County and municipal public health agencies’ refusal or inability to enforce public health orders has created a climate in which numerous businesses flagrantly ignore the law, thereby emboldening more businesses to do the same," one portion of the petition reads. "If we are going to keep businesses open in our state, it is essential that they comply with any and all public health orders."
Polis's office deferred any response to the CDPHE, which responded with a statement to Westword insisting that it's done more than simply hope that entrepreneurs and managers choose the safest path, despite recent evidence to the contrary. (A group of business owners in Loveland wrote a letter implying that they'll shrug off more severe restrictions unless special rules are developed for them, for example, and Weld County commissioners have publicly refused to enforce Level Red mandates.)
"We expect all businesses to follow executive and public health orders, and we applaud Coloradans who are doing all they can to stop the spread of COVID-19, the CDPHE says. "While enforcement generally starts at the local level, the state has been involved in enforcement through cease and desist orders and the temporary suspension of certain business and liquor licenses."
Colorado COVID Watch was founded by Josh Schlossberg, a sometime journalist (he's written for Westword, among others), who recently told us about his experiences with the Natural Grocers chain. In his view, the time for doing nothing more than "educating" businesses about public health regulations is long past.
"It's clear that everybody in the state knows what they're supposed to be doing — so people are deliberately defying the law," Schlossberg asserts. "If it was early in the pandemic and an official went in and said, 'You're doing the wrong thing — stop' and they did stop, that would be acceptable. The point isn't to punish people. But if they continue to do the wrong thing, there need to be repercussions."
He adds: "The vast majority of businesses are doing the right thing, but some businesses are saying, 'We're special,' which is being extremely selfish. We all have to be on the same page for this. It isn't some sort of victimless crime or moral failing. This is something that affects their employees, their customers and the larger community. We can't have a growing percentage of businesses not following the law and spreading disease during the worst part of the pandemic, with the state just saying, 'We'd sure like them to do the right thing.' That's just nonsense."
But that isn't what's happening, the CDPHE insists. "The Liquor Enforcement Division at the Department of Revenue is conducting checks to make sure licensees are in compliance with public health orders," it stresses in its statement. "Businesses that are out of compliance can have their liquor licenses moved into summary suspension. The Division works tirelessly to educate licensees with the changing circumstances in hopes of keeping businesses open and in compliance with the public health orders. The Division completed 204 checks for compliance. Of those, only two businesses received a summary suspension."
The department maintains that "Colorado state agencies continually communicate with state-regulated entities to promote and ensure compliance. In addition to proactive communication and regular updates to the state’s COVID site, state agencies contact regulated entities if a potential violation has been reported. For example, the Department of Regulatory Agencies directly contacts licensees if there is a complaint of potential violation of an Executive Order or Public Health Order, further informing the licensee that action may be taken to protect the public and the Department will enforce to its fullest authority if there is a lack of compliance."
Right now, the CDPHE says, "We are at a pivotal juncture with disease transmission. We are heading in the wrong direction, and we must all work together to ensure our hospitals have the capacity to provide care for those who need it. We urge all Coloradans to support those businesses that have made it a priority to protect their communities."
Schlossberg doesn't think encouragement is enough. "We need to have enforcement, and that's the State of Colorado's responsibility," he says. "Frankly, if the state isn't going to enforce the law around the pandemic, then we are just living in anarchy, where we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. What kind of can of worms is the state opening where we can follow some laws and not others — especially ones that impact our health and our lives?"
Here's the text to the petition (access the original at change.org), which collected more than 230 signatures in under 24 hours after it was posted yesterday:
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we, the undersigned residents of Colorado, are concerned by the number of businesses in our state refusing to comply with local and state public health orders mandating:
• physical distancing
• the wearing of masks by staff/employees
• that all customers wear masks (except those with legitimate medical exemptions)
• capacity limits
• last calls
• suspension of in-person dining
• business closures
According to the State of Colorado website, "Colorado law requires compliance with executive and public health orders; therefore, not following these orders is breaking the law." Despite this fact, an alarming number of Colorado business owners and managers are choosing to put their staff, customers, and communities at risk by willfully violating public health orders, thereby increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Disturbingly, a large number of non-compliant businesses reported by members of the public have yet to be visited by public health inspectors.
What’s more, many of the businesses that have been visited continue to disregard orders, yet few have been issued citations, despite the State of Colorado making it clear that "violation of a state public health order is a misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail. Individuals who violate an order may also be responsible for some costs of the health agencies in abating the cause of sickness, and could have a state license revoked, such as a restaurant, liquor, or professional license — subject to an enforcement action, including revocation."
County and municipal public health agencies’ refusal or inability to enforce public health orders has created a climate in which numerous businesses flagrantly ignore the law, thereby emboldening more businesses to do the same. If we are going to keep businesses open in our state, it is essential that they comply with any and all public health orders.
According to the State of Colorado, "Under Colorado law, [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] has the authority to enforce an order. This may happen when a local public health agency is unable or unwilling to enforce an order."
As COVID-19 continues to negatively impact the health of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans and tens of millions of Americans, we, the undersigned, demand that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment take immediate action to cite — and if violations persist, temporarily close — any and all businesses refusing to follow state law.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.