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Protesters decry COVID-19 restrictions crippling local restaurants

Group says protests will continue every Saturday until COVID-19 restrictions are loosened in Routt County

Protesters, many of them restaurant workers, gathered in front of the Routt County Courthouse on Saturday, rallying against public health orders that have placed restrictions on restaurants and other local businesses. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Members of the group Save Routt County, many of them restaurant workers, protested local restrictions put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19, which they say will lead to the demise of many local businesses.

The protesters gathered at the Routt County Courthouse on Saturday for what was billed as a nonpartisan message that was indeed almost entirely absent partisan messaging.

“It is not a partisan group here at all; the founding members of this thing, the initial group, there is Democrats, Republicans, independents,” said Jim Hansen, a chairperson with Save Routt County. “We just want to open up the county.”



Protesters held signs with slogans like “Unemployment is a public health crisis,” “All jobs are essential,” “Defund Routt County Commissioners” and “Restaurant lives matter too.”

Protesters rallying against local COVID-19 restrictions held signs and cheered as passing cars on Lincoln Avenue honked in support on Saturday. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Protesters cheered as cars driving down Lincoln Avenue honked in support, with even a Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firetruck blaring on its horn as well.



Hansen said they will protest every Saturday at the courthouse until restrictions in the county are loosened. Level red restrictions put in place by state officials in November closed restaurants, forcing them into a takeout-only model they say is not enough.

But Rachel Jacobson, a chairperson with Save Routt County, said it is about more than just restaurants, it’s about freedom.

“We’ve kind of lost all of our freedoms. So we’re trying to save our county from losing all of our freedoms,” Jacobson said. “I think it is up to you and me to make your own health decisions.”

Many of the protesters were without masks, exercising what they say are their personal freedoms. The group was handing out masks branded with Save Routt County and encouraged people to do what they felt comfortable with.

Many in the crowd were restaurant employees that said they just wanted to be able to go back to work. Amber Maisel, a bartender at O’Neil’s Tavern and Grill, said she came out to protest because she is struggling, wants to work and does not want to see local restaurants die.

“I’m a single mom, I was bartending, and I am now trying to live for me and my son off of a couple hundred dollars a week,” Maisel said. “I just want people to have the option of going out and either putting themselves in a position which might have consequences or not, and choosing to stay home.”

Joe Campbell, the executive chef at Mambo, Besame and Yampa Valley Kitchen in Steamboat, said from his experience, a restaurant is one of the safest places people could go, and he felt his restaurants were a safe environment when they were open.

Joe Campbell, an executive chef at several restaurants in town including Mambo Italiano, said restaurants were one of the safest places people could go during the pandemic because of their rigorous cleaning protocols. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Outbreaks in restaurants have led to fewer cases than in other settings, according to county data. There have been three outbreaks in restaurants, congregate living and from personal gatherings since the start of September. While the outbreaks from personal gatherings led to 24 cases and in congregate care led to 33 cases, restaurant outbreaks have led to only 11 cases.

Campbell said he doubts some of the retail stores are cleaning as much or allow as much space to social distance.

“Those places, people are going in there, touching shit and putting it back on the shelf, they are bumping into each other. That doesn’t happen in the restaurants,” Campbell said. “They are not sanitizing all their products on their shelves, wiping everything down every 30 minutes. We think it is unfair and that we are being singled out.”

He said that restaurants cannot survive on anything less than 50% capacity and still that would be tough. Many protesters acknowledged the seriousness of the virus but felt things had gone too far and that restrictions are hurting more than they are helping.

When level red restrictions were put in place on Nov. 20, the county had just reported 92 more positive cases of COVID-19. At that point, health officials said it would take a few weeks to see any indication in the data about whether the increased restrictions were working at slowing the spread of the virus.

Last week was the first week since October where new cases were less than the week before, and between Nov. 25 and Dec. 1, there were 86 new cases.

But protesters want them to be loosened now, closer to what was in place in the county this summer.

“We would like them loosened, we need to be looking at every aspect of it,” said Jacobson. “We need to be looking at how we can make us as a community more successful.”

Jacobson said the focus is all about the fear around COVID-19, but other things are important, too. She pointed to suicides, which Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington noted are up in the county at the public health meeting on Wednesday, with six this year compared to four in 2019. She also pointed to increases in domestic violence and mental health calls.

“There are a lot of other things that we are kind of ignoring,” Jacobson said. “This virus is real. It is here, but I feel like there is a better way to deal with this that can accommodate all people.”

A protester holds a sign reading, "We are all essential!" on Lincoln Avenue on Saturday, part of a rally against local COVID-19 restrictions that protestors say are killing local businesses. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

She said she would support most people living their lives somewhat normally while putting increased emphasis on protecting more vulnerable people.

Sherry Carrier, who is retired and of higher risk for the virus, said the pandemic has been really tough, and she is missing leaving her house.

“I cry a lot, and I’m home alone a lot,” Carrier said. “We don’t go anywhere because we’re older and we have existing conditions and we have been told to stay home — it is time to open up.”

Carrier said she feels a plan where people at lesser risk have less restrictions imposed on them and the more vulnerable would still take precautions would be more fair to people that need to work to support themselves.

“We need to consider the vulnerable, work and see what we need to do for them, but also think about everybody else,” Jacobson said. “There are so many people out of work right now, and there are so many restaurants on the verge of closing. What are we going to have left after this?”


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