In an effort to encourage mask use, social distancing, and other COVID precautions, Denver has been issuing citations to individuals and businesses for violations of state and city orders. Over 250 such citations have been issued from two departments, over 100 of which are court summons, and over 13,000 warnings were issued by the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE). DDPHE has also temporarily closed over a dozen businesses.
While over 100 businesses have received court summons to respond to infractions ranging from “One employee without mask” to more egregious charges of the majority of staff or patrons not wearing masks, city officials and departments have held large events that seem to violate their own guidelines. The Denver North Star couldn’t find a single instance of action taken against a city department and was able to review lists of all tickets and business closures issued by the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. While the full list of warnings from DDPHE and Parks was not available, The Denver North Star reviewed all data provided by city agencies.
One of those events that appears to violate city ordinances was organized by Councilwoman Jamie Torres’ office, in conjunction with other city offices and community groups. The Event called “La Raza Barnum Park Day: A Cruise Down Fedz” took place on Sunday, August 23 at Barnum Park and the park at 38th Ave and Navajo St (still officially called Columbus Park by the City, but possibly soon to be renamed La Raza Park). While the promotional materials for the event said “All Covid-19 precautions should be taken by participants including, but not limited to wearing masks and practicing physical distancing,” the event didn’t live up to those criteria. Fewer than half the people observed by The Denver North Star team wore masks and the event had little to no social distancing. While the Denver Parks Department issues a list of recommendations to be in compliance, almost none were followed. Possibly most seriously, state and city orders require that no permitted event can have more than 175 people, a number they easily surpassed with an estimated attendance of closer to 300.
Another journalist who spoke with The Denver North Star left the event early out of safety concerns from the lack of masks and distancing.
The list provided by Parks to create distancing and be in compliance included a “one in one out” policy with a monitored parameter, distancing between performers and guests, creating a ticket system to better monitor who is attending, a contract tracing list in the event guests later test positive for COVID, etc. None of these appear to have been followed. The event did have hand sanitizer bottles on tables and organizers hung signs asking attendees to wear masks. Councilwoman Sandoval also asked attendees to distance and wear masks during her speech, though there didn’t appear to be any meaningful response from the densely packed, maskless crowd. Masks were available for sale and one person walked through the crowd offering disposable masks, but at no time did organizers remove people who refused to comply.
Benjamin Chavez, an aide to Councilwoman Torres whose name appears on the official documents for the event, rejected the idea that they didn’t follow protocols. “We did our due diligence making people aware of expectations,” said Chavez. He declined to discuss individual guidelines from Parks. Despite the council office filing the permits for the event, he also said they weren’t responsible. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not a city event.” Chavez declined to provide contact information for other groups he said were involved who may have liability.
Less than an hour after completing the interview with Mr. Chavez, The Denver North Star received a call from State Senator Julie Gonzales asking for information about the pending story. After explaining that the story was looking into possible COVID violations from city officials, Gonzales expressed her displeasure: “I’m really angry right now listening to you,” adding that “COVID is but one consideration of safety.” Gonzales, who said she supports the city and state mask and distancing regulations and their enforcement, refused to say whether she thought elected officials and government offices should be held to the same standards as private individuals and businesses when asked. Gonzales was then asked about her support of the Governor’s executive orders to enforce mask wearing and social distancing. She said she wasn’t calling as a state official and wouldn’t address enforcement questions but was instead calling “because Ben is my husband.” Senator Gonzales is married to Torres’ Council Aide Benjamin Chavez.
Councilwoman Torres also discussed the Aug. 23 event with The Denver North Star. While Torres said she didn’t believe the violations were as serious as she thought the line of questioning made it out to be, she believed the buck does, in fact, stop with her office and other organizers: “If there were failures it falls on me. It falls on the committee. We’ll do better.” When discussing specific provisions, such as a one way path around the car show portion of the event which would greatly reduce crowding and physical contact, Torres agreed they could have done so and would use the guidelines more for future events. “Nobody is missing the fact that Latino communities in Denver are being hit hard by COVID” she added.
“Nobody is missing the fact that Latino communities in Denver are being hit hard by COVID”
-Councilwoman Jamie Torres
Unrealistic expectations? Other Events Follow Guidelines
During their interviews, both Chavez and Gonzales asked whether The Denver North Star looked into other events in the area and whether regulations were realistic to follow. In contrast to the city event, other events in the community appear to have followed nearly all city guidelines. Specifically, The Denver North Star team had attended another event a week later in the same park: “Chicano National Day of Action: Stop Police Crimes!” organized by local community groups. The Aug. 29 event also featured dancers, speakers, and booths, not unlike the Aug. 23 city-run event. The Aug. 29 event had over 100 people but was below the 175 person legal limit. Also, the non city event had volunteers stationed at the perimeter of the event and all attendees appeared to wear masks. Dancers, who are considered performers by city regulations, were on stage and distanced from the crowd, unlike the city event where maskless dancers were on the ground level with attendees.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
While several city agencies have ticketing authority and the over ten thousand people and businesses visited by enforcement agents might assume the departments work together and patrol large gatherings, that does not appear to be the case, raising questions about unequal enforcement.
Denver Police responded to an inquiry about their enforcement guidelines: “The Denver Police Department supports the legal requirement to wear face coverings and does have authority to enforce the mandate, however our successful approach has been to gain voluntary compliance, often supplying community members who don’t have one with a mask.” Denver police officers present at the event on August 23rd said they don’t enforce the mask and distancing policies at events and referred questions to DDPHE.
DDPHE quickly provided the majority of data requested, including a list of citations and discussed their criteria, but said that enforcement in city parks is the purview of the Parks Department.
Cynthia Karvaski, a spokesperson for Denver Parks and Recreation, said they don’t have staff monitor events in parks after the city issues permits. “We’re complaint based,” said Karvaski. She also said that as the permit was pulled by a city council office their policy is not to charge for use and they expect city council offices to follow the guidelines they provide.
Updated COVID-19 Numbers
According to The COVID Tracking Project, a project of The Atlantic media outlet, Colorado reached 59,920 COVID-19 cases as of September 10. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released data in early September estimating that the death toll in the U.S could reach between 410,000 and 620,000 by the end of the year, but that number would be cut in half by near universal mask use. “We expect the daily death rate in the United States, because of seasonality and declining vigilance of the public, to reach nearly 3,000 a day in December,” according to the IHME.
There are times where two or more stories can come from a single event. In this case, the La Raza Park cruise event could be covered as a cultural phenomenon or a question about public safety and government accountability. Seeing the importance of both stories, we choose to write both. To read more about the event itself, please read the related article on page 8.
In the course of writing this story, our team identified several other instances where city officials appear to have hosted or sponsored events that violated ordinances, but without more certifiable evidence we did not include those in this story.