‘Operation Gridlock’ Arrives In Colorado To Challenge Polis’ Stay-At-Home Order

David Zalubowski/AP
A traffic sign over westbound Speer Boulevard tells motorists to stay home as a mayoral “stay at home” edict goes into effect until Friday, April 10, in an effort to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Denver.

Update: The protest happened.

Demonstrators in automobiles, and possibly on foot, will converge on downtown Denver Sunday to demand Democratic Gov. Jared Polis lift his stay-at-home order.

The event, dubbed “Operation Gridlock,” follows a similar demonstration in Michigan and comes as opposition to such orders is growing nationwide.

Coloradans in both political parties have generally given Polis a lot of leeway as he’s exercised extraordinary powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the weeks of economic and social lockdown continue, opposition is galvanizing. Douglas County has outlined its own plan for reopening, and on Friday the mayor of Cañon City sent a letter to the governor asking him for assurance that the order will lift soon.

“It's gone from frustration into anger,” said Mayor Ashley Smith, talking about the small business owners in her community who’ve been forced to close their doors. “It will definitely be the breaking point for folks and I'm really worried ... that there could be some protesting and mutiny in my city. And I don't want it to be that way.”

This weekend’s protests may bring those sentiments to a new stage. In addition to the Sunday event in Denver, a driving protest is also being organized in Grand Junction Saturday.

As of Friday night, Facebook pages for the Denver demonstration showed about 800 people planning to attend, with more interested. The main page, Operation Gridlock Denver, calls for people to stay in their cars and drive around the Colorado state Capitol, halting traffic (Note: As of Saturday afternoon, the Facebook event had been removed). A smaller event urges protesters to gather outside the building. The organizers ask attendees to stand apart and wear masks “for everyone’s safety,” while urging policy makers to “Open Everything Now!”

“Yes, people are going to die. Yes, people will die,” said Victoria Reynolds, the chair of the Colorado Libertarian Party, which is helping to organize Operation Gridlock. “If they don't take precautions, it can be very, very bad,” she said referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, organizers describe the government actions taken to contain the pandemic as “unconstitutional.” 

Reynolds thinks voluntary restrictions would be just as effective in suppressing the outbreak as official orders. “We do not need them to tell us what we can and cannot do,” Reynolds said, adding that “any person with a brain” can make decisions for their own health. 

'Stay Home' Opposition Also Brewing Online

Critics of government efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus are starting to find each other on social media. A Facebook group titled 'ReOpen Colorado' that launched on Monday already has more than 13,000 members. And a conservative group, Colorado Freedom Force, has so far gathered around 2,500 signatures calling on the governor to lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings. 

“We have won the battle of flattening the curve, and We the People demand freedom immediately to maintain our social, economic, and spiritual strength for the long haul,” the group’s petition states. 

Former Republican state Sen. Kevin Lundberg is helping organize the petition. He’s concerned the efforts to fight COVID-19 will lead to a dangerous economic depression, “where people die for lack of basic things like adequate food [and] proper housing” 

“What we are toying with is not just inconvenience; we could be sacrificing our culture and our people for years to come,” Lundberg said.

Governor Urges Patience In Face Of Pandemic

Nationally, Americans’ fears of the virus appear to mostly outweigh their concerns about closures. A recent Pew survey found two thirds of respondents are more worried that governments will lift restrictions on public activity too soon, instead of keeping them in place too long. That data did uncover partisan differences though; while Democrats fall overwhelmingly on the side of government not reopening things too soon, Republicans are more evenly split in their views.

In Denver, Kalyn Heffernan was angry when she heard about the protests. A health condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, makes her lungs especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The order protects her health and people are already ignoring it, she said.

“The people that are most affected by this, and the people that are dying are primarily marginalized communities,” said Heffernan, a musician and former mayoral candidate. 

“It’s a shame and it’s frustrating. The longer we don’t take it seriously, the longer we’re all in lockdown."

Polis has acknowledged that requiring Coloradans to stay at home for the long-term is “unsustainable,” both economically and psychologically. And this week he described a plan to open the state in phases, starting with the goal of lifting the stay-at-home order on April 26. But he warned that people shouldn’t expect to see large gatherings and many other elements of regular life resume for months or longer. 

“We're likely to live along with [COVID-19] until it's cured or there's a vaccine,” Polis said. He added that the halting of normal activities has been painful for him too. “After this is done, I never want to hear the term ‘social distancing’ for the rest of my life,” Polis said at a media briefing on Friday. 

Police and public health officials in Colorado have so far mostly enforced the order through requests and warnings. In Denver, officials have issued about 3,000 warnings and 16 citations. All the citations were for businesses. This week state health officials shut down the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley after one employee died and the plant ignored warnings to do more to stop the spread of COVID-19 among employees.

Law Enforcement Will Not Prevent Protest

City of Denver spokesperson Erika R. Martinez said in a statement on Friday that while officials “understand people are frustrated with our current situation,” the stay-at-home order helps protect the welfare of the city’s communities.

“Operation Gridlock would be a wholly irresponsible and reckless way to express those frustrations,” Martinez said in a statement. “We must remind everyone that it is illegal to willfully block a public right-of-way.”

It’s unclear how law enforcement will handle the protests.

“We’re not going to go down there and just break it up because it’s happening. It’s one of those things that we’ll just see what is happening,” said Master Trooper Gary Cutler of the Colorado State Patrol, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol. Troopers will have personal protective equipment and hazmat gear bags.

The governor’s office also advised the public to stay away and said it’s not a good idea to gather in a large crowd given the current pandemic. 

“Those participating are only endangering themselves and others by ignoring the stay-at-home order, and we urge them to stay home,” said a spokesman for Gov. Polis. “No one wants to reopen Colorado businesses and lift these restrictions more than the governor, but in order to do that, Coloradans have to stay home as much as possible, except for critical activities, wear masks and wash their hands to slow the spread of this virus.”

'Gridlock' Protests Come With Partisan Overtones

Protests against stay home orders have occured in states with both Democratic and Republican governors, but the movement has taken on a partisan tone. In Michigan, where the most high-profile demonstration took place, Trump flags and banners were on prominent display.

On Friday President Trump appeared to encourage people to fight against restrictions specifically in states with Democratic governors, tweeting the phrases “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” 

The Colorado Republican Party is not involved in the weekend protests. But at least one GOP lawmaker may attend. Rep. Mark Baisley of Roxborough Park said organizers have encouraged him to participate and he’s giving it serious consideration. House Republicans have urged Polis to provide more information about when and how he plans to reopen the state.