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Judge orders law enforcement to stop indoor dining at CJ’s Diner

Restaurant has continued to allow in-person meals despite Level Red public health order
A District Court judge on Friday issued an order allowing law enforcement to use “whatever means necessary” to prevent CJ’s Diner from offering in-person dining as health officials deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases.

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

As the result of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, La Plata County on Nov. 20 moved into the Level Red public health order, which limits restaurants to offering only takeout and delivery services.

Jerry Martinez, owner of CJ’s Diner, however, has stayed open to indoor dining, saying his restaurant is not able to financially survive another shutdown to in-person dining.

On Tuesday, Martinez was issued a cease-and-desist order telling him to stop offering indoor dining. He would still be allowed to offer takeout and delivery.

But Martinez brushed off the order.

“My goal is to stay open,” he said earlier this week.

San Juan Basin Public Health filed an emergency motion that asked for a district court judge to rule CJ’s Diner is not complying with the cease-and-desist order and should be shut down to indoor dining immediately.

Judge William Herringer granted the motion late Friday.

“The danger is not just to individuals who chose to dine,” Herringer said. “The danger extends to the greater community because it has impacts on community spread and it also has impacts on the public health burden within the county, including hospital facilities and other medical resources.”

A Durango Police Department services technician testified that she visited CJ’s Diner to issue a warning Nov. 25 and it was “completely full.” Martinez was seen not wearing a mask, shaking hands and giving hugs, the services technician said.

Herringer said either the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office or the Durango Police Department will be instructed by Friday night to make sure CJ’s Diner stops offering indoor dining by “whatever means necessary.”

Michael Goldman, an attorney who represents SJBPH, said even with this recent order, CJ’s Diner is still allowed to offer takeout and delivery. But should the restaurant remain open to indoor dining, law enforcement would then have “discretion” about how enforce the order.

“Something has to be figured out if in fact the owner decides to continue to remain open for indoor dining,” Goldman said. “Law enforcement will do their best to try and use diplomacy to make sure the orders are enforced. To the extent there’s just complete defiance, ultimately, officers may determine the only way we’re going to enforce this is lock those doors.”

Martinez could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The order remains in effect for 14 days. A court hearing will likely be scheduled for Dec. 9 to further discuss the case.

Martinez’s lawyer was unable to attend Friday’s hearing. Herringer said the emergency nature of SJBPH’s motion created an extenuating circumstance where it was still legal to hold the hearing.

When contacted Friday morning, Martinez was initially unaware of the recently filed motion.

“I’m shocked something like that could happen,” he said. “I just think the health department people are that adamant about making something out of me.”

Martinez said CJ’s Diner was open for in-person dining Friday as it has been since a public health order went into place Nov. 20 prohibiting people eating inside.

Asked what his plan is going forward, Martinez said, “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Martinez has argued 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.

SJBPH, however, said indoor dining is among the most dangerous activities contributing to the spread of COVID-19 because customers remove their masks to eat and drink, allowing the virus to spread to other customers and staff members.

SJBPH said a sizable portion of transmission in La Plata County is associated with indoor dining, as evidenced by the fact that more than 24 restaurants have had confirmed outbreaks of cases or are under investigation.

Goldman said if Martinez decides to stop offering in-person dining, the entire case may be dropped.

“We’re always interested in resolution,” Goldman said. “That would be best. This is a process that is emotionally charged, and we appreciate that.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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