After a protracted legal battle with the state and San Juan Basin Public Health, Jerry and Carrie Martinez are stepping away from CJ’s Diner.
The co-owners have put the 810 E. College Drive restaurant up for sale as they look to exit their business after more than two decades. The Martinezes made the decision after 6th Judicial District Judge William Herringer’s dismissal of their lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and San Juan Basin Public Health.
The future of CJ’s Diner is unclear as the Martinezes await offers for the restaurant.
“I feel like the court case really drove us to this point,” Jerry Martinez said. “Why should I have to fight so that I can work? I’m tired as it is and you add one more thing. And we spent all that money.”
Herringer issued his ruling Feb. 25 and the Martinezes listed CJ’s Diner for sale the next day, Martinez said.
CREXI, a commercial real estate website, lists the 2,000-square-foot diner at an asking price of $350,000, and the sale includes the furniture and much of the cooking equipment. The Martinezes are selling their business; the property is not part of the business, according to April Bates, the Coldwell Banker Distinctive Properties agent handling the sale.
So far, four potential buyers have looked at the restaurant, but no one has submitted an offer. Some of the potential buyers have expressed an interest in continuing CJ’s Diner while others are interested in taking over the space for their own businesses, Martinez said.
“It’s been a great business for us for 22 years. We’re so involved in the community and (with) what we represent with CJ’s, there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to be affected by it,” he said.
The sale of CJ’s Diner ends a nearly year-and-a-half-long legal saga driven by COVID-19 pandemic precautions.
Martinez and CJ’s Diner defied local and state health orders in late 2020, choosing to remain open for in-person dining amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.
At the time, Martinez said the restaurant was staying open to employ staff members and keep the business operating. He said another shutdown of in-person dining would force CJ’s Diner to go out of business.
However, the Martinezes were met with legal action from SJBPH, which filed a cease-and-desist order against the diner on Dec. 1, 2020. After refusing to close the restaurant’s doors, a District Court judge directed law enforcement to close the business to in-person dining.
The Martinezes then stopped indoor dining, but in January 2021 filed a lawsuit against Polis, CDPHE and Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, and SJBPH and Executive Director Liane Jollon.
Attorneys for the Martinezes questioned the constitutionality of the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act, which outlines the authority for the governor and state to react to a disaster, and argued that executive and public health orders issued by Polis and SJBPH violated the Colorado Constitution.
In their lawsuit, the Martinezes sought attorney’s fees and rulings against the agencies and the three local and state leaders.
After more than a year, Herringer dismissed the Martinezes’ lawsuit in its entirety, finding that their claims were either “moot,” meaning they were already resolved, or did not identify a legal claim the judge could rule on. Herringer also ruled that the governor, SJBPH and CDPHE acted within their authority to respond to “the impact the pandemic would have on public health.”
Jollon said SJBPH was not targeting CJ’s Diner with its public health orders, which all other restaurants had to also follow, but was instead following the state’s COVID-19 dial and was fulfilling the agency’s mandate to protect public health.
The “Level Red” public health order SJBPH issued did not close restaurants, which were still allowed to offer takeout and delivery service.
“We didn’t take these decisions lightly, but it’s our obligation to fulfill our public health authorities and it’s our obligation to the community,” Jollon said. “We understand that this was an incredibly difficult time for everybody, but that fall and winter was Colorado’s most significant surge. We had more fatalities going into the next few weeks than we had seen at any other time.”
In late 2020, public health officials were concerned about the risk that indoor dining posed and the approval of COVID-19 vaccinations was still weeks away. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in April 2021 would later back up those concerns, finding that indoor dining in bars and restaurants increased the risks of disease transmission and super-spreading events.
To help restaurants, the city of Durango, La Plata County and the state and federal governments offered financial assistance, and SJBPH offered to help restaurants apply. Closing restaurants to in-person dining was not something SJBPH wanted to do, Jollon said.
“We didn’t like it either, but this is what we do when lives are on the line,” she said.
Martinez, who has worked in the restaurant industry for nearly 50 years beginning with Lori’s Family Dining, where Durango Doughworks now sits, shared frustration with the unceremonious end to the Martinezes’ lawsuit and now CJ’s Diner.
“I was really disappointed in how the judge handled the whole thing,” Martinez said. “He sits on it for six months and right before he retires, he just throws it out. It has a huge effect on (the sale of CJ’s Diner). It’s not the only reason, but it definitely played an influence in us saying, ‘I think we’re done.’”
With the sale of CJ’s Diner, he said Durango will miss out on more than a popular two-decade-old restaurant.
“You can go get a hamburger anywhere,” he said. “We’re more than a restaurant. We know when people are dying of cancer, when they’re walking through things with their family. ... Our customers have been loyal to us for all the years.”
In addition to CJ’s Diner, Martinez has also stepped away from the four community boards he sat on, including the Hundred Club of Durango, in which he has been involved for years and served as president.
He said he’s not sure what is next for him. With no immediate plans, there is a chance he leaves Durango.
“It’s my 49th year of doing it and I’m just kind of tired,” he said, noting that the entirety of the pandemic has taken a toll.
For Martinez, the end of two decades of CJ’s Diner was in sight, but the last year and a half has expedited that process and made it a difficult finale.
“I'm pretty frustrated. And when you’re frustrated, I think you speed up your timetable,” he said. “That’s the hard part people don’t understand doing this court case. This hasn’t been easy, and for it to be handled like it was, I feel spit on.”