The owner of CJ’s Diner said he has decided to stop offering indoor dining after defying public health orders for more than two weeks, resulting in legal action.
Over the weekend, more than a dozen customers stood outside CJ’s Diner at 810 E. College Drive, denying entrance to anyone other than customers, including law enforcement who showed up at the scene.
But Sunday, owner Jerry Martinez said he decided to stop offering indoor dining.
“We believe that the health department’s regulations are not right or fair,” he said Sunday. “But yesterday (Saturday) when I was served the papers by the (La Plata County Sheriff’s Office), and it had a judge’s signature on it, at this point, we’re going to respect that.”
CJ’s Diner will still offer takeout and delivery, Martinez said.
“I have a difficult time with all this stuff,” he said. “I mean, I just want to come to work. And so does everyone else in this community that is trying to support their family.”
When contacted Monday morning, Martinez said business was slow.
“There’s no one here, just like every other restaurant,” he said. “No one comes.”
La Plata County moved into the Level Red public health order Nov. 20 as the result of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases. The Level Red designation limits restaurants to offering only takeout and delivery services, as well as outdoor dining.
But Martinez stayed open to indoor dining, saying his restaurant is not able to financially survive another shutdown to in-person dining.
On Dec. 1, Martinez was issued a cease-and-desist order, which he ignored. He then continued to keep CJ’s Diner open to indoor dining after a District Court judge on Friday ordered law enforcement to close its doors to in-person dining.
It appears CJ’s Diner’s legal troubles are not over.
SJBPH filed a preliminary injunction (a motion in the early stages of a lawsuit to stop an act in dispute) on Monday against CJ’s Diner, with a court hearing planned for 9 a.m. Wednesday.
SJBPH attorney Michael Goldman did not return a call seeking comment.
Tensions over public health orders among restaurant owners have been rising in recent days after being closed to indoor dining.
Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit businesses since the pandemic started in March, subject to several shutdowns to indoor dining and limited capacity.
Health officials, however, say eating inside comes with a huge risk of spreading infections, as customers take off their masks to eat and drink and are typically in close contact with people from other households.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed or under investigation at more than 24 restaurants, SJBPH previously said.
It’s unclear when La Plata County may move back into the less restrictive Level Orange, which allows limited indoor dining, or if health officials are working on a variance process that would allow some restaurants to open.
Jollon said La Plata County may meet criteria for Level Orange’s test positivity rate, but not for case incident rate.
When La Plata County’s cases stay below 350 per 100,000 residents for 14 days, adjusted for population size, the state would automatically move the county back into Level Orange.
“I do not believe this has happened yet in any counties in Level Red,” she said.
As of Monday, La Plata County had 1,037 cases per 100,000 people in a 14-day period, adjusted for population size. The county has been between 950 to 1,100 new cases per 100,000 residents since Nov. 21, SJBPH said.
On Friday, the city of Durango announced it was going to raise its effort to enforce pandemic-related public health orders.
Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said at least one business has been identified as staying open despite the public health order, as well as a few other possible ones. He declined to name the businesses, citing an open investigation.
“We’ve got a lot of active investigations going on right now,” Brammer said.
Brammer said local and state agencies are working on an enforcement strategy.
The Wild Horse Saloon appeared to be open for business Friday night with music playing, patrons inside and some people outside smoking, according to an eyewitness. Amber Gilchrist-Morris, owner of the saloon, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Martinez, for his part, has maintained he was trying to stand up for not just his diner, but also other restaurants in town financially suffering.
“I don’t want to sow division,” he said. “We want our community to be OK. So that’s what it’s about. It’s not about CJ’s. It’s about our community because we’re all affected.”
Herald Staff Writer Patrick Armijo contributed to this report.