Virus Outbreak Colorado

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference on Wednesday as he outlines efforts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. Polis took issue with comments that use extreme language to criticize state and local officials over the tactics that are being used to curtail the coronavirus pandemic.

Criticism of state and local orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic is rising in Mesa County and elsewhere in the state, and in some cases it’s getting vitriolic.

Comments on the Mesa County Department of Health Facebook page, for example, have compared the department to Nazis after it posted a message earlier this week calling on people to report on others they suspect were not complying with its orders.

Those references to Nazism riled Gov. Jared Polis, who is Jewish.

“As a Jewish-American who lost family in the Holocaust, I’m offended by it, any comparison to Nazism,” Polis said during his daily press briefing from the governor’s mansion in Denver, part of which was conducted virtually. “We act to save lives, the exact opposite of the slaughter of 6 million Jews and gypsies and Catholics and gays and lesbians and Russians and so many others.”

Criticisms of such orders aren’t new. In March, as reported by 9News, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said on a radio show the orders were leading to a “Gestapo-like mentality.” Meanwhile, a growing number of people in the state and nation are rebelling against various orders, prompting some to promote planned protests against them, including one scheduled in Grand Junction on Saturday.

While Polis’ various executive orders related to the pandemic included no enforcement clause or threat of a penalty, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s order did.

The department’s public health order implementing stay-at-home requirements includes this enforcement clause:

“This order will be enforced by any appropriate legal means,” wrote the department’s executive director Jill Hunsaker. “Local authorities are encouraged to determine the best course of action to encourage maximum compliance. Failure to comply with this order could result in penalties, including a fine of up to one thousand (1,000) dollars and imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.”

An order issued Monday by the Mesa County health department on retail establishments included a similar clause, but the penalty is more severe. It includes a fine of up to $5,000 and 18 months in jail.

Those orders prompted enough backlash for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office and Grand Junction Police Department to issue similar responses saying they were planning to operate under “the presumption people who are out in the community are doing activities that are necessary and permissible under the governor’s stay-at-home order.”

But when the county health department posted on its Facebook page earlier this week new orders for businesses to ensure its workers were wearing masks and encouraging social distancing, it also invited people to call the department’s hotline — 970-683-2300 — to report anyone not following it.

That prompted more than 500 responses and 200 re-postings, many of which made references to the Nazis either in written posts, memes or pictures.

“1-800-IMA-NAZI. You are no different than what Hitler did. Screw you!!,” one post read.

“To those turning in your neighbors and local businesses, you did the Reich thing,” another read.

“Quarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people,” a third wrote. “Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people.”

Jeff Kuhr, department director, apologized Wednesday for the wording of that post, saying it could have been more clear. He said the post was intended to offer people a place to call if they had questions, and was later amended to make that clear.

“I think putting that messaging out at that point in time and creating that impression was a mistake on our part,” Kuhr said at his daily coronavirus response briefing Wednesday. “For every negative comment we get, we get a positive one.”

Megan Terlecky, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said that since March 23, the health department’s hotline has received only 163 complaints related to COVID-19 compared to about 2,100 general calls for information about the virus and how they should respond to it.

Still, those commenters aren’t the only ones who are showing frustration over the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

On Saturday, a noon protest “against the tyrannical lockdown orders” is being planned in the form of a “Cruise North Avenue for Liberty” event, where participants are encouraged to bring their own American flags or other signs of freedom.

That event primarily is aimed at Polis and his statewide stay-at-home order.

In response to that criticism, Polis said that kind of reaction not only isn’t helpful, it’s offensive.

“That being said, we know that these steps are difficult,” he said. “It’s not a contest to see what you can get away with. It’s a contest to see how well you can stay at home.

“By not staying at home, by having parties, by congregating, you’re not sticking it to the government, you’re not sticking it to Jared Polis,” the governor added. “You’re sticking it to yourself because you’re putting yourself and your loved ones in jeopardy, and you’re prolonging the economic pain and difficulties that your fellow Coloradans face.”

—Staff writer Alex Zorn contributed to this report.

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