LOVELAND — Several hundred Northern Colorado residents frustrated with myriad executive orders issued by Gov. Jared Polis dealing with restaurant capacity, select small businesses still unable to open and mask mandates, gathered for nearly two hours Wednesday at Veterans Park to discuss their options moving forward.
The event, which was organized by the Facebook Group Keep Colorado Free and Open, featured several guest speakers, as well as passionate residents, who spoke about everything from direct defiance and lawsuits to recruiting candidates for office and recalls.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith was originally slated to the be the keynote speaker but canceled the day before. Smith’s public information officer, David Moore, told the Loveland Reporter Herald on Tuesday he was backing out because it appeared the focus of the event had changed from the time he initially agreed.
“Our last line of defense against authoritarianism, is the sheriff,” said one man from Fort Collins who asked not to be identified by name. “And he doesn’t have the courage to stand here with us tonight. That for me is disappointing.”
The Ft. Collins resident fired the crowd up by saying today’s America is not the America those veterans who were present fought for.
“Damn right it’s not,” another man yelled out from the crowd.
“That’s what we are all fighting for right now. That is why we all came here today,” the Ft. Collins resident continued, “because of the acts of freedom, because there is tyranny against us as people. We need to have courage to speak up, to stand up.”
He said he was not a Republican or a Democrat and would likely not usually agree with most in the crowd and their beliefs. He said this was not about fighting each other.
“There is no right wing,” he said. “There is no left wing. We’re in here together to fight this tyranny together.”
Smith told Complete Colorado on Thursday there was much more to his decision to back out of the gathering than just the focus of the event changed.
“I thought I was speaking to a group,” he said. “Then I found out there would be more speakers, and it was more of a rally speaking on different issues.”
Smith said he became more concerned when he was asked if he could provide security, promote the event and learned there may be counter protestors.
“We had just been through two events in one week in Berthoud that got a little dicey and bubbled up,” Smith said. “I need to be cautious. I just can’t get in the middle of something where I’m the reason the other side showed up. I don’t want to create this division.”
Smith said some of the questions he was sent were also concerning because they went beyond the public health orders that he thought he’d be speaking to, such as how much force a person can use during a protest and deputizing citizens, he said.
“There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there,” Smith said about law enforcement’s role in enforcing Polis’ executive orders. “I’ve been very outspoken on most of that. But some of the questions were beyond my scope. We are in the middle of enforcing Senate Bill 217, trying to implement change to law enforcement roles, and people want me to deputize every man, woman and child. That is not something wise to be discussing.”
The counter protest “Crash the Party” had been initiated through a Facebook group but did not materialize. Keep Colorado Free and Open administrator Julie Formby quickly found alternate speakers for the event, which included representatives from Reopen Colorado, Recall Polis 2020, Faith Education Commerce (FEC) Colorado, former Larimer County Sen. Kevin Lundberg and 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez.
Mark Patlan, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Polis that alleges mask orders are compelled speech, was the keynote speaker. He discussed the basis for the suit, including the idea that face coverings are purely symbolic because they don’t work.
“The state cannot compel you to wear a symbol,” Patlan said. “The First Amendment protects your right to speak, but it also protects your right not to speak. The First Amendment protects you from the state making you its messenger, and the masks carry two messages, that they are necessary and that they work.”
Patlan said the state needs to prove with reliable, scientific data that masks work and that healthy people spread COVID, among other things.
“We’re asking the state to prove with reliable, scientific data, that health people spread COVID,” he said. “Think about that. My mask protects you from me, even though I don’t have COVID, and your mask protects me from you, and you don’t have COVID.”
Patlan said one of the allegations also stems around the responsibility that is put on the business owner who must choose between losing their business license if they don’t enforce the mandate or facing federal civil rights penalties if they do.
“Governor Polis is coercing business owners into enforcing this unconstitutional mandate,” Patlan said. “That’s a problem because under our civil rights laws, businesses who are enforcing unconstitutional law, can face financial liability. He’s put businesses in a lose-lose situation.”
Joe Oltmann, who along Lopez lead the Reopen Colorado movement, was behind the effort to get restaurants to open ahead of permission from the state. Oltmann said he got involved when he watched one of his clients commit suicide over losing his business to the shutdown.
“For me I just got tired and said screw it,” Oltmann said. “I started fighting against Polis, and I started spending money in the marketplace to help businesses open. We organized in the (southern Denver Metro area) 462 restaurants that opened on Memorial Day and gave Polis the middle finger.”
He also leads Faith Education Commerce (FEC) Colorado, which supports the reopening of churches, schools and small business.
Smith told Complete Colorado he was sorry if he misunderstood the intent of the event and offered to answer any questions in writing for the group about his office enforcing the public health orders. He simply did not want to be the reason another riot broke out.
“It is not wise for me to go and bring this all on,” Smith said. “I’m trying to protect their right to speak but keep from more confrontation.”
Formby said over all she felt like the evening was a large success. All of the organizations represented set up tables to hand out more information, solicit donations and get people to volunteer their time.