CHEYENNE – One of the most popular restaurants in Cheyenne has opted to defy the state’s public health orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the restaurant’s owner arguing he had to do so in order to stay in business and keep his staff employed.
Sanford’s Grub and Pub, a popular burger joint located in downtown Cheyenne, has a sign posted in front of its door that reads, “Having deemed the Wyoming social distancing mandates unconstitutional and no longer having anything to do with the health and welfare of the public, and in defense of the livelihood of our employees, customers and great people of this community: This establishment is NOT following social distancing mandates.”
The sign adds the restaurant is not following capacity and seating restrictions or mask requirements for customers, but employees will still be wearing masks.
Sanford’s owner James Yates said he wanted to put the sign up to let people know beforehand what kind of environment they would be entering.
“The reason why we put the sign up there was to let anybody know that’s coming in, ‘If you’re not comfortable with coming into our restaurant, then don’t come in, because this is what we’re doing,’” Yates said in an interview with the WTE.
Yates said he isn’t trying to be a “lone ranger” in the effort, noting he was aware of several local restaurants and bars that also have not been following the public health orders.
The primary order related to Yates’ business is one focused on public spaces, including bars, restaurants and gyms. The order requires restaurants to maintain at least six feet of distance between those seated at different tables, and allows for no more than six people at a table if those customers are from different households.
Yates, who estimated the order effectively cuts his seating capacity in half, noted inconsistencies in the order that don’t make sense to him. For example, the order does not require people seated at different booths to be separated by at least six feet, only tables.
“I said to the health department, ‘You’re telling me that COVID doesn’t know how to climb over a booth?’” Yates said.
Yates said he arrived at the decision to defy the distancing requirements in tandem with his general manager and employees, as his team viewed noncompliance as the only option to avoid laying people off.
“I am standing behind every single restaurant that says that they’re not doing it, and I understand why: When it goes out of business and you can’t pay your bills, no one’s going to be here,” Yates said. “I didn’t do this for any reason, except for the fact that if I don’t do it, I can’t pay my bills …. and I’m not going to lay off any more of these hardworking employees that worked for me.”
So far, the noncompliance at Sanford’s, which began several weeks ago, has resulted in a few visits from the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department. A visit about three weeks ago resulted in a written warning, Yates said. During another visit a week later, an officer with the Cheyenne Police Department accompanied a local health official to the restaurant, and they told Yates he could lose his liquor license for two weeks if the restaurant continued to defy the orders.
The possibility of losing his liquor license confused Yates, as Wyoming statutes related to public health orders only allow for a fine of up to $1,000 or up to a year in jail.
“I don’t speed down the interstate, and then the police officer says to me, ‘I’m going to go ahead and instead of giving you a ticket, I’m going to recommend that your house be taken away,’” Yates said.
Roy Kroeger, environmental health director at the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said the department was prompted to talk with Yates after receiving several complaints from customers about the lack of mask usage and social distancing.
“They’ve been polite talks, but there’ve been major disagreements,” Kroeger said in an interview Tuesday.
Kroeger confirmed that a liquor license suspension was brought up during their discussions. With the Laramie County District Attorney’s office unwilling to prosecute any cases related to a mask mandate, Kroeger said the department has been exploring “alternative means” to gain compliance, working with Cheyenne City Attorney Michael O’Donnell to figure out its next steps. Requests for comment from O’Donnell had not been returned by press time.
Kroeger, who is one of the main county health officials responsible for checking on places that draw complaints, estimated his team has conducted “at least two or three dozen” initial visits to various establishments in Cheyenne.
“Most of the time, they tell us that they will do what they have to do to remain open and follow the rules,” Kroeger said. “Obviously, I’m sure that there are some, after we talk to them, that go back to their previous ways, but this is the only one that’s really been flaunting it, and theirs is the only one that we’re receiving continuous complaints on.”