A Colorado restaurant owner is defending his decision to reopen dine-in services to hundreds of customers in violation of the governor's "safer at home" order, saying that "people wanted their freedom."
The county health department ordered the restaurant to immediately close and threatened to revoke its license if the owners continued to defy the order.
Jesse Arellano and his wife, April, opened their Castle Rock eatery, C&C Breakfast & Korean Kitchen, for Mother's Day. They did so in defiance of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis's order for restaurants to keep their dine-in services closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Nick Puckett, a reporter for Colorado Community Media, recorded a now-viral video showing dozens of customers packed into the restaurant on Sunday. Nearly all of the customers in the video were without masks and not practicing social distancing.
The Tri-County Health Department (TCHD), which is in charge of enforcing the governor's order in Castle Rock, ordered C&C Breakfast & Korean Kitchen to close immediately on Monday afternoon, after the restaurant ignored the department's warning on Friday not to open its dine-in service.
"Despite the warning, the restaurant was opened to dine in eating on May 10 in violation of Public Health Orders issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)," TCHD said in a statement.
The restaurant has been ordered to remain closed until the health department determines it is in compliance with the public health order.
"If the restaurant refuses to follow Governor Polis’ Public Health Order, further legal action will be taken that could include revocation of the restaurant’s license," TCHD said.
Per the public health order, dine-in services for restaurants and cafés are still closed, while delivery and drive-up service has been available since March 19.
"It is disheartening that this restaurant has chosen to move ahead of the public orders and not even consider implementing best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Dr. John M. Douglas Jr., executive director of TCHD, said in a statement.
"It is not fair to the rest of the community and other business owners that are following Safer at Home and doing their part. We sincerely hope that C&C will choose to cooperate with the rules under which they are allowed to operate so we can lift this closure order," Douglas said.
The governor's office also condemned the restaurant's decision.
"These restaurants are not only breaking the law, they are endangering the lives of their staff, customers, and community," a spokesperson said.
Jesse Arellano defended his decision to violate Polis's "ridiculous" order in an interview with KOA NewsRadio on Monday.
"We're okay with two or three weeks," he said. "But we're going on two months now, and then we heard the governor say that maybe we'll open by Memorial Day. And that's ridiculous. If everything else is opening up with restrictions, why can't we open with the same restrictions or something similar?"
When asked why he did not enforce any social distancing inside the restaurant, Jesse said they did "space some of the tables out," but that "it didn't matter."
"People were just coming, so there was no stopping them," he said. "People wanted their freedom."
Jesse said he did not order his employees to wear masks but asked them to wear gloves. He said he also gave his employees notice about the reopening and added that they didn't have to come into work if they didn't want to.
He said "none of the customers seemed afraid" to be inside the restaurant.
A sign posted outside the restaurant said, "ATTENTION: Our freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins…If you are afraid to be within 6 feet of another person, do not enter this business!"
There are 661 confirmed coronavirus cases in Douglas County, and 26 people have died of the virus, according to the TCHD. There are 115 cases in Castle Rock.
Jesse said that while he does believe the coronavirus is "serious," he did not think that 26 deaths was a "super-high" number; he claimed that there were "false reports" of deaths being attributed to COVID-19.
"I'm pretty sure people die of other things too," Jesse told KOA NewsRadio. "Not just COVID. We see a lot of false reports that they say they die of one thing, and they say it's COVID. Everything is COVID now. Everyone dies of COVID, which I think is ridiculous."
He said he and his wife have not yet decided if they were going to open for dine-in services on Monday as well, "mainly because we had a such a turnout yesterday that we've got to make sure the place is nice; we have to some final cleaning and sanitizing and make sure we have enough food."
The couple did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.
The restaurant tagged President Donald Trump in a tweet on Saturday announcing that it would open for dine-in services on Mother's Day.
"We are standing for America, small businesses, the Constitution and against the overreach of our governor in Colorado," the tweet said, linking to a now-deleted post on the restaurant's Facebook page.
In a deleted post on her personal Facebook page, April Arellano announced that the restaurant would be open for dine-in services on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. She said she planned to open despite claiming that a Castle Rock police officer had alerted the TCHD about her plans.
A police spokesperson said she had no information about that and directed all inquiries to the health department.
The restaurant's defiance sparked backlash from many people on social media, including other local restaurant owners.
Chris Fuselier, the owner of a Denver restaurant, said that while he understood the owners' financial troubles, he "strongly" disagreed with their choice to "blatantly disregard social distancing restrictions."
A Castle Rock resident slammed the owners and said they "put profits before people's health and spun it as a cry for freedom."
However, there were those who supported the restaurant's decision, including a Colorado state representative, Patrick Neville. The Republican politician visited the packed establishment on Sunday, posting a photo of himself with April Arellano.
Neville later responded to the backlash, saying, "The left mob is coming after me over this hardcore. I have to take a step back and think, 'they are this crazy angry because I went to a coffee shop?' It is shocking that we have gotten to this point, but it was my pleasure to attend."
In a video she shared with CBS4 on Sunday, April showed how packed her restaurant was, adding that there was a "line down the street" and that the patio was also full.
"So much for some of those people saying nobody would show up," April said in the video.
She told KDVR that around 500 people dined at the restaurant on Sunday.
“I got thanked from so many moms," she said. "I’m a mom too and just to be able to go out and sit down and not have to do the dishes."
Puckett's video showed a line outside the restaurant along with a man — who appeared to be armed — standing guard outside to let people in.
April told Colorado Community Media that she was not concerned about the customers at her restaurant not wearing masks or practicing social distancing; she said she did not believe her restaurant would pose a public health risk.
“We in the service industry have been taking precautions for years. … We wash and sanitize everything anyway," she said.
She said that people were "piling into" retail shops.
"So right now, I don't really see the difference," she said. "And we're human. … I know a lot of things are [run] by fear. I don't have that fear."
"Everyone goes to Walmart, everyone goes to Lowe's and Costco," Jesse told KAO NewsRadio.
"And that's our whole point ... you buy marijuana but you can't go to church. You can go to a liquor store but you can't go eat at a restaurant. It's crazy," he said.