Farmers Fresh Market in Ignacio says it won’t require face coverings for customers or staff members – despite a warning of legal action by La Plata County agencies.
At Farmers Fresh, employees and customers have the option to wear or not wear face coverings. That stance, while popular with the local community, flies in the face of public health orders requiring masks to reduce coronavirus transmission. Despite numerous notices and an official enforcement warning, Farmers Fresh Manager Amos Lee said the business does not plan to change its policies.
“There was nothing official. It was basically a threat letter. At this point, we’re not going to respond to it until there is formal action taken,” Lee said.
The warning letter, addressed to Lee on July 24, primarily addressed one violation, the “failure to wear required face coverings about the mouth and nose, either by management, staff or the public during indoor operations.”
It highlighted 14 complaints from members of the public from June 9 to July 22. It mentioned two incident reports made by the Ignacio Police Department and three follow-ups by San Juan Basin Public Health.
It marks the end of months of phone calls, in-person visits and emails to help the company understand which orders apply and why they apply, said Christian Champagne, district attorney for the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
“We have worked extensively with them to gain voluntary compliance, focusing on education regarding the need to keep the community, their customers and their employees safe,” he said.
About 50% of customers and staff members end up wearing masks, Lee said. The grocery store, one of the only full-service grocery stores in the Ignacio area, also provides masks and gloves to those who want them.
“I didn’t feel like I was qualified to make decisions for people, so I gave everyone the latitude to make their own decisions,” Lee said.
Those decisions included staying home if necessary, wearing masks and not wearing masks – even when face coverings were required by public health orders, recommended by public health professionals and when the company faced legal action described in the warning letter.
The store’s stance is popular with the local community: More than 80 community members virtually attended the Ignacio Board of Trustees meeting Monday. Most of them liked the way Farmers Fresh was doing business and opposed enforcement.
The town of Ignacio said it is not the primary agency enforcing the public health orders, but supported the warning letter, said Mark Garcia, interim town manager.
Five next potential legal actionsThe letter, signed by SJBPH, the district attorney, La Plata County and Ignacio warns Farmers Fresh of potential legal actions that could be taken against the establishment.
If it does not comply:
Farmers Fresh could be ordered to close.Its food handling and licensing permits could be revoked.Its record of noncompliance could be used against the company during the license renewal process.It could receive a citation or summons to appear in court on criminal violations/misdemeanor charges.Its business license could be suspended.The team, guided by SJBPH, is weighing its options about the best way to proceed, Champagne said.
Despite the letter, Farmers Fresh is not changing any of its practices. Lee said that was primarily because of the issue of enforcement.
“I think this narrative needs to be challenged,” Lee said.
Speaking for Farmers Fresh, Lee wanted to counter the idea that business owners should have to enforce public health orders, particularly the idea that they should refuse service to the public if they won’t wear a mask.
He said the enforcement wasn’t fair to employees who have earned the right to make their own decisions by working overtime in a “highly contaminated environment” while everyone was in quarantine.
Lee did not directly answer why he is not requiring masks in a “contaminated environment,” saying it was everyone’s decision.
He emphasized that information about the virus has been unclear and contradictory. He also challenged the idea that face masks effectively reduce viral transmission.
SJBPH, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have declared support for the use of face masks during the pandemic.
“As it pertains to Farmers Fresh, it’s all about the enforcement. Why do I have to enforce this? When did I become the mask police?” Lee said.