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CJ’s Diner in Durango opens against court order

Restaurant says indoor service was ‘really busy’ on Saturday
La Plata County Sheriff’s deputies were stopped Saturday at the entrance of CJ’s Diner by supporters of the restaurant who said they were protecting the rights of the restaurant to allow in-person dining despite public health orders preventing indoor dining.

CJ’s Diner opened its doors to customers Saturday, one day after a District Court judge ordered the Durango diner be closed to in-person dining.

More than a dozen supporters blocked the door to the diner Saturday morning, allowing only customers to enter. Inside, tables were full.

“There’s real lives involved in this,” said one woman who was with the group blocking the entrance and declined to give her name. She said an employee at CJ’s lost her son to leukemia and now might lose her job.

“The eight-month lockdown on small businesses has been catastrophic,” she said.

A surge in COVID-19 cases has pushed La Plata County into a Level Red status of public health orders. San Juan Basin Public Health reported 1,662 cases as of Friday in La Plata County, and more than two third of those, or 1,229 cases, have occurred since Nov. 1.

For restaurants, the Level Red designation prohibits indoor service but allows takeout and delivery. Some local businesses have increasingly pushed back, saying they may not be able to financially survive another shutdown.

Jerry Martinez, owner of CJ’s Diner, shown Nov. 24 in his kitchen, has refused to cease indoor dining despite public health orders prohibiting in-person dining. The Durango diner opened again Saturday morning despite receiving a cease-and-desist order and a court order to shut it down.

Jerry Martinez, owner of CJ’s Diner, has defied public health orders and remained open, despite enforcement action.

Earlier this week, Martinez was issued a cease-and-desist order telling him to stop offering indoor dining. After ignoring the order, a District Court judge on Friday ordered local law enforcement to close CJ’s Diner to in-person dining by “whatever means necessary.”

On Saturday morning, a Durango Police Department officer approached the group gathered outside the diner and requested entrance. The group refused, and the officer left.

In a separate incident, a Durango Police Department officer dropped by to thank the crowd for peacefully gathering.

Patrol officers observed people blocking the door, but they didn’t see any evidence of food consumption inside the diner, said Durango Police Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop according to officer reports Saturday morning.

“Right now, we’re just observing and documenting,” he said. “At this time, I’m not prepared to disclose any course of action that we intend to take if they continue to violate the health order and now the court order.”

When reached by phone, an employee at CJ’s Diner said the diner was serving food but declined to comment further. She said Martinez was unavailable to speak on the phone.

“We’re really busy right now,” she said about 12:20 p.m.

In previous interviews, Martinez said his diner at 810 E. College Drive has complied with every previous public health order issued since the pandemic started in March, to the detriment of his business and his employees.

On Friday, business owners and their supporters gathered in Buckley Park to advocate for reopening local businesses and to protest public health restrictions. Speakers announced that two other downtown Durango businesses, Living Tree and Durango Diner, would also be open for in-person dining. Both businesses were closed as of 11 a.m. Saturday.

At CJ’s Diner, supporters stood with signs reading “Yes!!! We are open!” and “We support our Durango Police Department.”

One Durango resident, who identified himself as Jeff Ross but called that a “pen name,” said the health department is not listening to science and is ruining people’s lives.

Most people blocking the diner’s door declined to speak with the Herald.

“There needs to be a better balance between bogus public health mandates and a small business’ ability to function,” said the previous woman who declined to give her name.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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