But she opened anyway, joining a growing group of businesses across the nation that are defying government orders despite concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could get worse if people begin to crowd together again at restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons — all the trappings of a normal American life.
“It wasn’t a political statement,” Chagolla said Tuesday night, standing on the patio of the Charro. “It was more of a necessity.”
Chagolla’s choice came down to the difference between life in a wheelchair and life on her feet. Chagolla, 57, has severe rheumatoid arthritis, and she pays $1,650 in health insurance each month to afford medicine that keeps her walking.
“If I don’t have that, within eight weeks, I would be wheelchair-bound,” she said.
Chagolla runs one of several Colorado restaurants defying a state order to keep eateries closed to in-house diners until further notice, as the novel coronavirus continues to affect the state: Officials have reported more than 20,000 confirmed cases and 1,009 virus-related deaths as of Wednesday morning, though the rate of newly reported cases has nearly leveled off statewide.
Greeley is the seat of Weld County, where elected officials have taken a firm stance against Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’s order, encouraging businesses to open as they see fit.
Polis — who has been attacked on both sides, for trying to open up too early and for being too restrictive in his safety regulations — met with President Trump at the White House on Wednesday afternoon.
He was the latest in a string of Democratic governors who have traveled to Washington for face-to-face sessions at the White House. Trump uses the events to bolster his claim to a bipartisan approach to the pandemic, and the governors use the on-camera moment to seek supplies, money and other resources.
Polis shared the invitation Wednesday with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R). Trump was flanked by placards listing federal aid and other help for each state as he praised economic reopening plans in both states.
“They want to get their states open,” Trump said of the two governors.
Polis said that most businesses are now open in Colorado, with the exception of “social businesses” such as bars and nightclubs.
“A few places have restaurants open, we’re working on the rest soon, but offices, manufacturing, salons, pretty much all people are back and in a safer way,” Polis said.
After noting that he had recently gotten his hair cut while both he and the barber wore masks — “Looks good!” Trump interjected — Polis said that “people are being responsible, and I mean it’s that individual responsibility that’s going to make sure that we can stay on this trajectory.”
Polis and his Colorado delegation wore masks as the Cabinet Room event began, but Polis removed his as he spoke to Trump and addressed the news media at the start of the session. Trump also said the cautious assessment about reopening offered Tuesday by the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, was “not an acceptable answer.”
“Look, he wants to play all sides of the equation,” Trump said, before predicting an economic resurgence later this year. “I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed.”
The appearance at the White House on Wednesday came as the United States neared 83,000 total deaths related to the coronavirus outbreak, putting the nation’s death toll at more than two and a half times the next-highest country. The number of confirmed infections also continued to rise, with more than 1.38 million in the United States as of Wednesday, or about 1 in every 240 Americans.
The rate of growth in new cases has begun to level off in many states, even in some hot spots such as New Jersey, where, for the second day in a row, fewer than 825 new cases were reported, a rise of 0.6 percent. But experts continue to caution that attempting to open up states too quickly could lead to a giant increase in cases and spread.
The push to reopen Weld County, the state’s agriculture hub located an hour north of Denver, led to a behind-the-scenes struggle between elected officials and the county health department, which was led by Mark Wallace until his resignation last week. Emails obtained by marketwatch.com via a public-records request spelled out Wallace’s unsuccessful bid to discourage Weld officials from opposing state guidelines and sprinting to jump-start the local economy.
The emails showed Wallace’s consistent efforts to slow reopening efforts and increase testing among at-risk populations, particularly at a local meatpacking plant, where the county’s largest outbreak began among the workforce. Wallace and the Weld County commissioner’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Chagolla said she contacted the county and asked for permission to open up the small restaurant to diners, and did so with the promise that the county health department would not shut it down. The restaurant is operating at about 25 percent capacity, she said.
“Our county said we could open,” Chagolla said. “I realize the governor does not like that. But he’s not sending me $1,700 a month to pay my insurance. We haven’t had any pushback yet from anybody.”
Another restaurant in Colorado has not enjoyed as much leeway from local and state officials. C&C Breakfast & Korean Kitchen in Castle Rock, Colo., two hours south of Greeley, opened to large crowds on Mother’s Day, with a published video showing shoulder-to-shoulder patrons and people standing in line for breakfast. After opening to diners again on Monday, the business received a shutdown order from the local health department Monday afternoon.
Colorado then revoked the restaurant’s tax license on Tuesday, rendering the owners unable to operate either of their two locations in the area.
A Gofundme.com page started by Steve Gilbertson to support C&C owner April Arellano had raised more than $24,000 as of Wednesday morning. The page’s author described Polis as “the one thing worse than coronavirus.”
Gilbertson and Arellano declined to comment.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the defiant restaurants, which also include Grubby’z in Pierce, Colo., and Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo.
But Polis offered no criticism at the White House.
In an interview on MSNBC later Wednesday, Polis noted the license revocation and said that restaurants opening must do so safely.
“It’s really finding out how we can live in the world with the virus,” Polis said, noting the lack of a vaccine or an effective treatment at the moment.
A spokesperson for the Colorado State Joint Information Center declined to specify what, if any, action would be taken against Charro, but added that the state will take three main factors into consideration in each case of businesses defying the state order: “official complaints, local actions and the level of purposeful defiance.”
“The goal isn’t to shut down restaurants, it’s to make sure businesses are following the orders that are necessary to keep Coloradans safe,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Chagolla describes the way C&C opened as “horrific” and emphasized that Charro has been taking multiple precautions to avoid transmission of the virus, including removing salt and pepper shakers from tables, and sanitizing menus, pens and bill trays before each use. Counters received more wipe-downs than usual, but Chagolla left a decision to wear masks up to staffers and customers. Few did on Tuesday night.
“If we lose that license, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes,” Chagolla said. “I don’t want to spread anything and I don’t want to catch anything, but I’m willing to take that risk to feed my family.”
Diners leaving Charro at closing time Tuesday evening said they were impressed with the social distancing measures inside the restaurant and had little fear of contracting the virus there.
“How many viruses have we gone through? And we’ve never had to do anything like this,” said Barb Zundel, 70, of Greeley. “If I can get my hair done and my toes done, I should be able to go out and eat. I’m not afraid. I’m not at risk. I don’t know why I’m not afraid. . . . You know what, I have the Lord Jesus watching over me.”
Gearan reported from Washington.