About 180 business owners and their supporters gathered for a “Business Lives Matter” protest Friday in Buckley Park with one main message: Open Durango.
Because of a rise in COVID-19 cases in La Plata County, bars are closed, gym capacity is restricted and restaurants are prohibited from serving customers inside their businesses. The city of Durango has offered businesses relief grants and other support, but business owners say they are fed up – and increasingly willing to break the rules, arguing that’s what they need to do to stay afloat financially.
“I don’t know if the Wild Horse will make it through this,” said Amber Gilchrist-Morris, owner of the Wild Horse Saloon in Durango, speaking to the crowd.
Gilchrist-Morris announced via Facebook this week that she would open the bar on weekends, in violation of state orders and risking enforcement action by San Juan Basin Public Health. The saloon was open as of 8 p.m. Friday with music playing and customers smoking outside.
“If I can take some of that heat off of our businesses and give them a little bit of courage to stand up, then that’s what I’ll do,” Gilchrist-Morris said.
Restaurants and small-business owners around Colorado have expressed frustration at strict public health guidelines, claiming they have been unfairly burdened.
An estimated 65% of restaurants statewide could close if conditions don’t change. La Plata County has already lost several, at least in part because of COVID-19.
“We all need to take responsibility for our own lives, for the lives of our families,” Gilchrist-Morris said. “We need to tell the government to get the hell out of our businesses.”
After speakers, a prayer and the national anthem, the crowd left Buckley Park to walk down Main Avenue bearing signs like “support small business” and chanting “business lives matter.”
Several attendees questioned the effectiveness of the public health orders or didn’t trust that officials were being honest with the public.
“I want small businesses to be treated the same as big-box stores,” said Don Wicburg, a business owner who lives near Durango.
A Bayfield resident said schools were likely causing more viral spread than restaurants and businesses. Public officials are not considering the harm to businesses, said a Durango resident.
“I’m afraid in Durango ... all the small businesses are going under,” said Renelle Stewart, owner of RKSO Structure and Design. “It’s very disheartening. Small businesses are what make Durango.”
The city of Durango announced plans Friday to increase enforcement for violations of the city’s mandatory mask order and help SJBPH enforce state orders by documenting potential violations.
The city is also offering business relief grants of up to $15,000. City Councilors directed staff members Tuesday to find other ways to support businesses, such as deferring tax payments.
Stewart of Durango was hesitant to speak publicly as a business owner.
“We don’t want to be targeted,” she said. “We don’t want (local officials) to come after those of us that need to speak our truth. And why aren’t they out here with us?”
firstname.lastname@example.orgThis story has been updated to remove an unverified report that other businesses planned to open in violation of public health orders.