CENTENNIAL — All Jennifer Hulan ever wanted to do was own her own winery, and for a while she’s been living that dream. If Tri-County Health and Gov. Jared Polis have their way, however, Hulan might find herself not only without a business, but without a home as well.
Hulan and her husband — who handles the wine making for Water’s Edge Winery & Bistro at 2101 E Arapahoe Rd. in Centennial — mortgaged their home, pulled from their 401 K, and have dipped into their savings to get the business up and running. Five years later, they have a thriving business, Hulan said. They were just preparing to have a big five-year anniversary celebration until Covid-19 and Polis’ reaction to it shut down all restaurants from inside dining.
“We closed for about a week when all this first happened,” Hulan said. “We retooled and opened up for to-go and curbside business.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Hulan began to notice the numbers and hysteria around the virus just were not adding up.
“People wanted to stick around and have a glass of wine while they waited for their orders,” she said. “It just kind of started slowly progressing.”
Then she attended the first rally at the state capitol and someone handed her a flyer encouraging businesses to fully open their doors on May 1st, in a sign of solidarity for the U.S. Constitution and a person’s right to liberty.
It wasn’t a decision that came lightly, Hulan said. She prayed with her family and discussed all the pros and cons to defying a direct order from the governor. She asked all the hard questions, even some she didn’t like the thought of.
“I asked my husband, ‘are you OK if I do this? What are we OK with? What are we not OK with? Do we have bail money? How do you feel about your wife being civilly disobedient?’” She said. “He was in the Navy on a nuke sub during the first gulf war and is a constitutional guy, so he fully supported it.”
She also talked to her employees, who all but a couple were on board. She said she didn’t require them to wear masks because she comes from a family of nurses who all told her wearing a mask is more dangerous than not, but they all have that option.
She moved the tables both inside and out further apart than the six-foot requirement, in most cases, more than double the requirement. She has hand sanitizer on the bar for anyone’s use. She fully sanitizes all the tables and chairs between customers, and she’s gone far beyond making her establishment safer than any retail establishment is required, adding restaurant and bar owners are among the most regulated business the health department oversees.
She doesn’t understand why a business that is already inspected to make sure they are keeping their customers safe and healthy is the business being punished the most.
“We’ve gotten clean bills of health,” she said. “They trust me during healthy times to make sure they stay healthy and safe. Out of all the businesses, why not trust us to keep them healthy now? We are grownups running a business just like Walmart and Safeway and King Soopers.”
It didn’t take long after she opened on Friday for someone from Tri-County Health to come calling, she said. She got a phone call shortly after opening asking why she chose to open and reminding her it was the governor’s decision and warning her she needed to close.
She remained open Saturday, adding she was overwhelmed by the generosity of her customers, whom she calls patriots. She said most of her employees were struggling to pay their May rent or put food on their tables, but customers were over generous with tips, and they all walked away after two days with the money they needed to keep a roof over their heads for at least another month.
“It was two of our biggest days ever,” she said. “None of my employees have gotten their unemployment checks so if for nothing else, I’m happy for (the weekend). It was a nice, peaceful weekend. Everyone left us alone.”
But first thing Tuesday morning she heard from the health department again. This time the conversation wasn’t quite as friendly, she said.
“It started out pleasant, and then escalated quickly when I started citing the constitution,” she said. “They told me, ‘you’ll be hearing from our attorneys, this is an edict from the governor.’”
Later that day, she did hear from an attorney, the state Attorney General’s Office who called and spoke with Hulan’s attorney about the matter. In the end, they sent her a multi-page docket and a 24-hour notice to close, she said.
And despite a warning placed on her business at 1:15 Wednesday, she opened again at 3 p.m., just as she’d planned.
“We are Americans, and up until a couple of months ago, we had freedoms,” she said. “This is not just about people’s physical health. It’s also about their financial health and their mental health.”
Hulan said she wanted to stress her communication with both the health department and the attorney general’s office feels like a game of volleyball.
“They just keep blaming (the governor),” she said about Tri-County. “No one wants to take the political ball and run with it. Tri County officials are not elected. They are not responsible to the voters. What is their authority to trample all over my constitutional rights?”
Hulan said she is in this for the long haul. She has no intention of shutting down. Hours at the winery are Tuesday through Saturday 3-8 p.m. She said there is safety in numbers, so she’s encouraging more restaurateurs to follow her lead.
“Everything I ever had I rolled into this business,” Hulan said. “If I lose it, I have nothing. I don’t think people understand the level of nothing that people with small businesses will have if they lose them.”