Can local authorities disband large public gatherings during a pandemic?
The question appears much more complicated after a concert and rodeo in Weld County on Sunday. The event drew about 2,000 people to a private farm near Hudson, and many of them did not wear masks or maintain a safe social distance, according to Colorado Politics.
While the Weld County Sheriff’s Office tried to prevent the event, spokesperson Joe Moylan said deputies couldn’t do anything to stop it. He said the concert only ended after the landowner saw the size of the crowd, and told the promoters to call it off. Moylan doesn’t even think the headliner, La Zenda Norteña, made it through the traffic jam on County Road 37.
“We didn’t feel like we had the authority to go in there and break it up,” he said. “ So we just kept an eye on things until it finally it broke up on its own.”
The whole sequence has caused understandable confusion about large gatherings during the pandemic. Other counties have cracked down on outdoor events due to state and local public health guidance. So why didn’t Weld County?
Here’s an attempt to clear things up.
What was the event?
Vail resident Carlos Barkleys organizes rodeo and concert events across the state. Authorities said he had originally planned to host the latest event in Elbert County but shifted gears after the local public health department said he had not secured the proper permit. He then moved the venue to a farm outside of Hudson, east of Longmont.
Moylan said the initial landowner called off the event after hearing from the local Sheriff’s deputies. The promoters then changed venues, yet again to another property nearby.
By Sunday afternoon, Moylan said his department began receiving calls about traffic jams and noise connected to the event. Sheriff’s deputies closed the road to access the farm and briefly patrolled the entrance. He said the rodeo and concert disbanded around 7 p.m. after the second landowner complained to the promoters.
If those plans went forward, does that mean large events are legal?
Gov. Jared Polis’ Safer at Home order lists acceptable outdoor gatherings, such as markets, fairs and rodeos. It caps attendance at 175 people if an event takes place outside. No Colorado county has advanced to the Protect Our Neighbors stage, which would extend the size of gatherings.
In most cases, counties have enforced those rules. The most notable example is Bandimere Speedway in Morrison. Jefferson County Public Health sued the racetrack after it hosted a Fourth of July event with an audience of far more than 175 people.
A judge recently denied an injunction against the speedway but ruled it must follow public health orders in Jefferson County.
Do state public health orders apply in Weld County?
Not according to Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker.
In a memo written to county commissioners, Barker claimed Polis’ Safer At Home order is not valid because it did not go through the proper rulemaking channels and cannot be enforced.
“I always become suspicious of an order’s validity when there is no enforcement by the entity...issuing the order,” wrote Barker.
County commissioners have supported the position.
That dispute is just the latest coronavirus conflict between the Democratic governor and Weld County Republicans. Earlier this month, Weld County commissioners used similar legal logic to buck Polis’ statewide mask mandate.
Why didn’t the rodeo need a permit?
Other counties issue permits for large outdoor events. Those processes have helped local officials enforce new coronavirus guidelines.
According to Barker, Weld County repealed its permit process for large gatherings in May 2019. The Sheriff’s Office suspects that may have been the reason promoters moved the event from Elbert County to Weld County.
But Barker said the event may have violated land-use rules because it held a rodeo within the county’s agricultural zone. Such events usually require special permission, which was not granted.
If the county won’t enforce public health orders, can the state?
The state typically relies on local agencies to enforce public health orders.
A spokesperson with the Colorado Joint Information Center said state authorities can become involved if that isn’t happening and an event could put people in danger.
“If the state has enough information and confirmation of likely or actual non-compliance, the state can issue a cease and desist order. When we become involved, our primary intent with enforcement actions is to prevent an ongoing event from jeopardizing public health,” said the spokesperson.
In early July, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a cease and desist order to shut down a Bible conference in Teller County, after staff and attendees tested positive for the virus.
The event in Weld County did not result in any citation or a cease and desist order, according to the spokesperson. The Colorado Office of Emergency Management did dispatch a representative, but that person did not continue to the event after speaking to county officials.
Micki Prost, another spokesperson with the state emergency operation center, said the office does not have the authority to shut down events.
“Our role is to provide technical guidance and assist with resource requests,” Prost said.
All this legal stuff is boring! Can’t I just throw a rodeo?
Legalities aside, public health experts warn Colorado is still in the midst of a pandemic.
Most people have no natural immunity to the novel coronavirus. Hospital capacity remains limited. And after a week of declining or steady case rates, the trend lines are creeping up again.
Even if an event takes place outside, that doesn’t account for crowds near entrances and exits, bathrooms or bad weather forcing everyone indoors.
In short, a rodeo and concert would probably be a blast. It’s also a bad idea given, you know, everything.