COVID-19: Polis Shutters Scofflaw Diner, Fears More Deaths

Colorado Governor Jared Polis during an interview earlier this year.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis during an interview earlier this year. CoinDesk via YouTube
In many press conferences prompted by COVID-19 over recent weeks, Governor Jared Polis has accentuated the positive rather than rhetorically bringing down the hammer. But his May 11 address to the media featured multiple moments when he chose a different tack, particularly on the subject of C&C Coffee and Kitchen, the Castle Rock eatery that defied state rules against serving patrons on site during a Mother's Day event that ignored social-distancing recommendations as well as other safety precautions.

Polis confirmed that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has suspended the location's license indefinitely, using sharp language to do so.

"I was extremely disappointed seeing businesses and people actively breaking the law and defying health orders," Polis said. "We all have laws we agree with and don't agree with...but it's our responsibility to follow the law." He added that he shares the frustration of those angered at the sight of "people illegally packed into a restaurant and all the mothers and grandmothers and aunts and everyone put at increased risk of dying from this horrible virus. ... At the individual level, the stakes are even higher. It's the difference between going on living and experiencing a particularly agonizing and lonely death."

But while Polis acknowledged online comments suggesting that attendees at the gathering deserved to get infected with COVID-19, he didn't echo such opinions. "That's not a Colorado value," he responds. "We hope nobody had the coronavirus, and we hope that everybody is safe who went there."

The fuses on these fireworks weren't immediately set alight at the news conference. Polis began by discussing his planned May 13 meeting with President Donald Trump, to talk about the need for additional federal resources in Colorado's COVID-19 fight. According to Polis, it's important for Trump "to hear what's really going on on the ground: the fear, the anxiety, the health conditions, the economic challenges the people of the country face. ... I'm going to do my best to make sure the president is not living in the ivory tower of the White House and is aware of what's going on across the country."

He feels some "trepidation" about getting on a commercial flight to the nation's capitol, Polis conceded, "but when the president invited me and the governor of North Dakota for an hour meeting, there was really no way I could say no to advancing the needs of the people of Colorado."

Next, Polis shared the latest stats from the CDPHE: 19,899 confirmed cases, 3,659 hospitalizations, 573 people who are currently hospitalized, 49 individuals released during the past 24 hours, and 981 deaths. He also revealed that the daily growth rate of cases is 0.9 percent — the first time that figure has been under one since the dawn of the crisis — and the hospitalization growth rate stands at 0.1 percent.

Nonetheless, Polis stressed that hospitalizations are still occurring. "There have been people who've tried to compare this to a cold or the flu," he allowed. "But neither of them require one in ten people to be hospitalized. There's a stark difference. That's the reason COVID-19 is a global pandemic. ...The fatality rate continues to be about one in 100 who contract it," and the hospitalization and fatality rates for those seventy and above are much higher.

At that point, Polis shared the criteria officials will be following in order to determine if restrictions can be loosened further. They include: What level of suppression of the virus have we been able to achieve? What is our ability at each moment in time for testing and containment? How can we better protect vulnerable populations during each phase? Does our health-care system have the capacity to help those who are sick (COVID-19 and non-COVID-19)? What's the level of risk versus societal/economic/psychological benefit? And is the policy sustainable?

These questions are important, Polis suggested, because "I don't think any restaurant owner in our state wants to open for a week or two only to have to close again."

To that end, Polis offered a glimpse at a proposed timeline for decisions to be made about next steps to reopening. Camping at state parks is back immediately, with agencies able to take reservations beginning tomorrow, May 12. On May 25, decisions will be made about spring skiing, summer camps and a potential reopening of restaurants on a wider scale, as long as they practice proper social distancing and other safety measures. And on June 1, the current safer-at-home program will be amended based on the latest information.

"These are not potential opening days," Polis emphasized. "This is when we'll have more data and can make the call."

Other items on Polis's agenda included his introduction of Colorado Classroom: Learning at Home, which will feature instruction from master teachers specializing in kindergarten through third grade to be broadcast on Rocky Mountain PBS stations statewide; the virtual classes will debut at 8 a.m. on May 18. He also lauded Lockheed Martin and aviators participating in a "flyover parade and aerial salute" to doctors, nurses and other front-line workers slated for May 14; the display is a fundraiser for which Lockheed Martin has established a $500,000 challenge grant.

After these upbeat mentions, though, Polis got serious about C&C. To those who shrug off the virus, he offered personal stories about five people who contracted COVID-19, not all of whom survived. His delivery was somber as he said, "I want you to pause and think about the grief families across the state are feeling about the souls we've lost far too soon and the priceless lives we can still save."

He was in touch with his own mom virtually on Mother's Day because he loves her "far too much to risk her health by going to a busy restaurant just to take a selfie with omelets and a mimosa. Colorado and America, we are better than that."

When Coloradans see videos of customers jammed into a restaurant with no social distancing, they "feel less safe," he continued — and that's why the aforementioned Castle Rock restaurant's license has been suspended for "probably at least thirty days" until "the hazards are removed," Polis revealed. Tri-County Health, the agency that oversees Douglas County, where C&C is located, is also looking at other enforcement actions, he said.

The state is "walking a tightrope" when it comes to figuring out how to keep citizens safe from the virus while trying to help them from an economic standpoint, Polis maintained, "and it's hard enough to walk without folks shaking the rope because of their own ideological and anti-scientific views." And while he noted that it's certainly possible no one who went to C&C on Mother's Day will come down with the virus, the odds of infection would go up astronomically if forty or fifty other restaurants were emboldened to do likewise: "It's almost a statistical, epidemiological certainty that at least a couple would have coronavirus, and it would go to tens or dozens of people in that kind of packed-in, illegal environment."

The result of C&C's actions, Polis explained, is that it will probably still be closed after other restaurants are allowed to reopen.

During the question-and-answer session that followed his prepared remarks, Polis was asked if he would be wearing a mask when meeting with President Trump, who refuses to don face coverings even though multiple people working in the White House have recently received positive COVID-19 diagnoses. He replied that he would be protecting his own safety — and afterward, he would deliver his May 13 update from Washington, D.C.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts