Colorado cracks down on large events but not protests

Conservatives see 'clear double standard' in protest policy


Colorado officials in recent weeks took enforcement action against events that threatened to overrun the state's limits on crowd sizes, but the crackdown called attention to the lack of similar enforcement regarding racial-justice protests around metro Denver in recent months.

The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a cease-and-desist letter in late July to Live Entertainment, the company behind a planned July 26 rodeo in Weld County and at least one other event that have drawn as many as thousands. The office proactively sent cease-and-desist orders to an organizer, Adixion Music, as well as a venue, Imperial Horse Racing Facility, to stop such events in the future, according to a governor's office news release.

Gov. Jared Polis called such gatherings “dangerous superspreader events” at an Aug. 4 news conference, referring to large crowds' ability to spread coronavirus.

“People who put themselves at risk aren't just putting themselves at risk — they're putting their family, their neighborhood and community at risk, and we cannot stand for that,” Polis said at the news conference.

In all, Weiser's staff has sent four cease-and-desist orders to organizers for violating size limits on large events, said Weiser spokesman Lawrence Pacheco on Aug. 19.

'Double standard' alleged

The state's response to the Weld County rodeo prompted a conservative blog, Colorado Peak Politics, to argue that protests received a “free pass” on crowd-size enforcement and that Polis looked the other way when it came to “mobs rallying their Democrat base.”

That complaint echoed other conservative writers in recent months, including in an op-ed piece in Colorado Politics magazine by businessman Barry Farah, a 2018 Republican candidate for governor, that spoke of a “clear double standard” in the state's treatment of protesters. An opinion piece by U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican of Windsor, made a similar point about protests nationwide.

Protests amassed in the downtown Denver area for at least two weeks in late May and June following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, an incident that sparked nationwide unrest. Protests that also focused on criminal justice issues in Colorado — such as the death of Elijah McClain in August 2019 following an encounter with Aurora police — continued into at least late July in the metro area.

In some cases, the demonstrations saw crowds of thousands. Denver-area protests are often organized and advertised on social media.

Under Colorado's safer-at-home order, gatherings of more than 10 people in public and private spaces are prohibited, but crowd sizes can be larger in numerous circumstances depending on the activity or business, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Under the safer-at-home order, outdoor events — including receptions, fairs, rodeos and concerts and others — can allow up to 175 people, excluding staff, per designated activity with a minimum of 6 feet between individuals or non-household contacts.

'Right to protest'

Weiser's office and the state public-health department declined to respond to questions from Colorado Community Media about complaints of political bias and why protests should be treated differently than other types of large gatherings.

Polis' office did not directly address those questions but provided a statement in response.

Polis “respects every Coloradan's right to free speech. The governor has been very clear that we are still experiencing a global pandemic, and if people choose to exercise their right to protest, they need to wear masks, practice social distancing, and get a free and easy test afterwards,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis. 

Despite Polis' support for the motivation for protests, he worried about the effect of large demonstrations on the spread of COVID-19 and encouraged participants to get tested. The governor stressed the importance of wearing masks and staying 6 feet from others.

“Health experts tell me (the protests) could result in hundreds of new cases,” Polis said at a June 2 news conference.

As a dramatic rise in the state's rate of new COVID-19 cases took shape in June, Polis pointed partly to protests as a driving factor.

“Our uptick, like the major spikes in other states, is largely among the younger demographic,” Polis said at a June 30 news conference. “I think it is partially attributable the bars and nightclubs and also potentially to the large public gatherings and the protest movements that we've seen outside.”

Earlier that month, Polis didn't characterize the protests as playing a large role in Colorado's outbreaks, saying “there's some evidence that” some of the people involved in a Boulder outbreak attended marches.

“We don't necessarily have that same information from Denver,” Polis said at a June 24 news conference. “We believe it was associated with large get-togethers and parties.”

Asked how large a role protests played in Colorado's June and July spike in COVID-19 cases, the state public-health department put the focus on Coloradans' wider socializing compared to earlier in the pandemic.

“The increase in cases last month is likely due to a change in behavior, including socializing in larger groups, especially if without proper physical distancing or mask-wearing,” said an Aug. 20 statement from the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which includes staff from the state public-health department.


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