Restaurant protest

The masked, socially distanced staff of Meat & Cheese — pictured outside the restaurant in November — make their case for keeping restaurants open. “We’ve been fighting this for a really long time,” Meat & Cheese manager Sam Hayes said Monday.

 

Since the Pitkin County Board of Health’s decision to shut down indoor dining as part of level red COVID-19 restrictions Monday, the Pitkin County Restaurant Alliance has formed and mobilized, and it’s suing the county.

The newly formed nonprofit filed a lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court Thursday evening seeking a temporary restraining order that would halt the implementation of the health board’s motion to shutter indoor dining as part of moving into the state’s level red COVID-19 restrictions, set to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

“By filing this complaint, the Alliance is not seeking to challenge all COVID-19 regulations and restrictions mandated by governmental authorities. Rather, the Alliance is seeking to ensure that restrictions that will affect employment of approximately 1,500 Pitkin County residents are based on concrete scientific and medical evidence, not guesswork, especially when the defendants’ own data and evidence contradicts its position,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit implores the defendants — Pitkin County, Pitkin County Public Health Department, Pitkin County Board of Health and Pitkin County interim Public Health Director Jordana Sabella — to instead maintain the “status quo” set by the previous “orange-plus-plus” restrictions, which observed level-red restrictions in most sectors but allowed continued indoor dining.

“Strict application, and proper enforcement, of these guidelines will serve the dual purpose of reducing COVID-19 transmission without singling out and destroying restaurants and resident employees’ livelihoods and thereby further weakening the local economy,” attorney Chris Bryan, of Garfield & Hecht, wrote in the complaint.

The Alliance mobilized quickly, having already established a website at ­pitkincountyrestaurantalliance.com. There, the organization makes a case for its existence — and having retained counsel to pursue legal action against the county for its health board decision.

“The Pitkin County Restaurant Alliance is a group of restaurant owners, industry professionals and concerned citizens formed with the purpose of petitioning for judicial review of the public health order issued by Pitkin County on Jan. 12,” the website explains. “Despite overwhelming objection from the community, the county ordered restaurants into level red on the state’s COVID dial, closing indoor dining in Pitkin County and further restricting operations as the two-week incidence rate is already declining.”

On Monday, when the health board made its decision after a four-hour special meeting that drew the interest of more than 1,000 people who tuned in, 554 cases had been confirmed in the county in the past two weeks. On Wednesday, the most recent available data on Thursday, that number was 545 — when adjusted to the incidence rate, which measures the number of infections per 100,000 residents, that means the incidence rate had fallen below the 3,000 mark, to 2,765.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has introduced what it’s called the 5 Star program, which encourages businesses to implement more cautious safety measures in exchange for being “certified” to operate with lesser capacity restrictions than required by the state’s COVID-19 dial. A county cannot be eligible to engage in that program, however, until its two-week incidence rate falls below 700.

Inquiring minds won’t find a list of the member restaurants comprising the alliance — and that’s part of the point of the collective, Bryan emphasized Thursday. By protecting the identities of participating restaurants, those individuals also are sheltered from any potential retaliation.

That doesn’t mean that Aspen restaurateurs have been hiding their displeasure with the county’s move — quite the opposite. On Tuesday, Daily Update host Oliver Sharpe met with five industry leaders who expressed their shared frustration and anxiety about the future of the local economy and character if eateries aren’t allowed to host guests indoors.

“We’re not done fighting; we’re not done operating. We will be standing at the end of this, and collectively, we can be very constructive in the solutions to this problem, but what happened yesterday was unbelievably insulting,” Jimmy Yeager, of his namesake Jimmy’s, told Sharpe on Tuesday.

City, county and health board officials have so far defended the position, however, citing efforts to begin the state’s 5 Star program and the ­Paycheck Protection Program funds that are again available. And, of course, they unilaterally urge people who are financially able to do so to support restaurants in the ­capacities at which they will be allowed to operate if the new restrictions indeed go into effect Sunday: that is, outdoor dining (tables are limited to single households) — available until an 8 p.m. service cutoff — takeout, curbside and delivery, which must stop at 10 p.m.

“Obviously, it is their right to request that this be reviewed through the judicial branch,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Thursday. “Beyond that, given that it’s an active lawsuit, I really can’t comment.”

Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.