A few Park County establishments are openly defying public health orders, specifically the recently imposed restrictions that require bars and restaurants to close their doors from 10 p.m.-5 a.m. through Jan. 8.
The Elkhorn Bar and Grill in Meeteetse is one of these businesses. Co-owner Magnum Faust, 38, said the restaurant he runs with his wife Rachel Faust, 39, was visited by Park County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Rob Cooke on Friday around 11:30 p.m., 90 minutes past the legal time for their business to be open. Cooke told the business to shut down for the night, which their bartender complied with at the time.
The bartender said the deputy threatened their food and liquor license being pulled if they did not comply. Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said he is still investigating the deputy’s visit, although he denies that the deputy made any threats at this time.
Magnum Faust said their compliance won’t be happening again and finds the health orders to be an infringement on constitutional rights.
“This is not an anti-authority grab here for us. This is nothing to do with the local town council, or sheriff deputies, or the Park County sheriff or anything – we respect all those people,” he said. “This is about this ridiculous mandate that they’re trying to put out on all of Americans, and encroaching on all of our freedoms.
“Sometimes standing up for what you believe in comes off as disrespectful or disobedient. This is not what this is about.”
Faust said Tuesday he does find the virus to be a real threat, supporting sanitation and social distancing efforts, while also mentioning he finds masks effective in certain hospital scenarios.
Although he does not find them to be effective in a restaurant or bar, a recent post on the Elkhorn Facebook page promoted another business selling fake masks.
Prior to the deputy’s visit, Faust stated on the Elkhorn Facebook it would not be enforcing the state’s face mask order in their establishment, which Faust defends in part because the restaurant offers drive-thru and take-out options to customers.
“By now, nine months into this pandemic … patrons know that they are assuming a risk by walking into public eating establishments,” he said. “We are not going to enforce our patrons to wear a mask in such a tiny community with such a low infection rate. We feel that increased sanitation efforts do more to combat the spread of this virus than a mask ever would.”
He said their face mask flouting prompted chatter among the Meeteetse town council and initiated a visit from Mayor Y.W. (Bill) Yetter. Faust said the meeting was civil and respectful, but not lacking subtle threats.
“Bill brought up if we refused mandates and it came to town hall and they were having to bring it to council and put it on the agenda, they would have to take it as far as they have to do in order to enforce whatever rules were put out,” Faust said. “At that point we kind of explained to him, ‘if you’re going to make that big of a stink about it that we’ll just close up shop and go somewhere else.’”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Yetter said there is no consideration taking place for revoking the Elkhorn’s liquor license at this time, but would not rule out the possibility of it occurring in the future if the business continues to not comply with orders.
“At this point I would hate to speculate on what’s going to happen down the road,” he said.
In Powell, the Red Zone Sports Bar and Grill is claiming to be a “travel center” in order to justify defying health restrictions, a move owner James Andrews said his legal team thought was an apt description for the business.
“We’ve been charging electric vehicles all summer,” he said, also mentioning the business’s proximity to a city parking lot, Wi-Fi, USB and other electric charging outlets as proof the Red Zone, despite not once describing itself as a “travel center” on its website, is in fact that.
Around midnight on Thursday, Powell police officers paid the business a visit to educate its staff on the rules of the order, but took no action beyond that. Andrews said Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt has not spoken to him directly since the interaction.
“He decided what he was going to do,” he said.
The county’s two police chiefs and Steward have all stated they will rely on education in their enforcement of health orders. As far as actual enforceability goes, even Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin has stated this is a tall task.
“Having a mask mandate is one thing, enforcing is another,” Billin said during a November commissioner meeting. “Nobody is looking for people to come into a business and haul you away because you’re not wearing a mask.”
To date, there have been no charges levelled in Park County for any health order infractions, but Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric has not ruled out prosecuting charges if law enforcement presented violations to his office.
Park County Commissioner Dossie Overfield said she sees both sides of the coin when it comes to business owners trying to stay afloat amidst COVID-19 concerns, but sides with the advice of professional health practitioners and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist.
“It’s been proven that when people imbibe in alcohol they get kind of lax with taking precautions,” Overfield said, describing Harrist’s curfew order as a compromise initiated in order to avoid shutting down businesses altogether.
Faust and Andrews both said they do not believe rules should be created that cannot be enforced, and Faust describes the 10 p.m. curfew as, “more of a power-grab than about compliance and safety.”
Andrews said the Red Zone was closed for about six weeks in the spring due to health order restrictions, while Elkhorn went to take-out only for two months.
In the winter time, Park County businesses do not frequently stay open past 10 p.m. Faust said his business typically exceeds this threshold about three of the six days per week it is open, and his staff decides when to close based on how many people are inside the building at different points in the night.
On Saturday, a county variance request submitted by Billin was denied by Harrist. If approved, the variance would have allowed the county’s restaurants and bars to stay open until midnight daily, and until 2 a.m. on New Years.
Both Andrews and Faust said they still plan to stay open until midnight and later on New Years, even though Andrews admitted the NYE holiday can sometimes be slow at the Red Zone.
Both business owners mentioned the vast amount of support they received on social media for their pledge to stand up to the orders.
“You guys are true Americans and we love and support you,” said Facebook poster Glenn Wood. “And if we all stand up for our rights we will win this battle.”
The owners also cited the need to keep their employees as a primary reason for taking a stand.
“I have three employees here, two are single mothers, and this is their only income,” Faust said. “They have to be able to work their shift all the way through and get that support.”