City Attorneys Discuss Denver’s Response to Pandemic and Civil Unrest

Government lawyers say city applied “equity lens” to decisions on masks, testing sites and curfews

Attorneys from the Denver City Attorney’s Office on Oct. 27 discussed the city’s response to the pandemic and widespread protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing — from curfews to COVID testing sites to mask orders — and their efforts to apply an “equity lens” when making legal decisions.

The talk, “Tackling Racial Bias in the Midst of a Global Pandemic,” was the second in the University of Colorado Law School’s “Race and the Law” series, which is part of the law school’s new anti-racism initiative led by Dean James Anaya.

Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson kicked off the presentation by explaining that, under the Denver City Charter, the City Attorney’s Office is tasked with advising on every legal aspect of every decision made within the city, whether by the mayor, City Council or any of the city’s departments, agencies, boards and commissions. 

Bronson said that “race was an issue from the outset” of the pandemic, as there was racism and xenophobia against Asians and Asian-Americans as the virus spread from China to the rest of the world. COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected communities of color, she added, further burdening communities already hit hard by systemic racism, discrimination and lack of access to health care.

“If we did not recognize that race played a role in absolutely everything that we were doing —if we failed to take equity into account — we risked making this yet another moment in history where we would be exacerbating racial disparities or furthering the equity gap,” Bronson said.

“Our challenge really was to navigate the legal waters as we were putting unprecedented restrictions on people’s lives: how they move, how they work, how they socialize, how they work and worship,” she said. “We faced imposing face-covering orders, restrictions on movement and travel curfews. And we needed to do all of this through an equity lens.”

Deanne Durfee, director of the City Attorney’s Office’s municipal operations section, noted that the city had had already adopted racial equity and social justice initiatives and training before the pandemic hit. In 2019, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock created an Office of Social Equity and Innovation to help educate city staff and agencies about social and racial equity. After Denver activated its Emergency Operations Center on March 11, Durfee said, the Office of Social Equity joined the emergency operations team to advise on policy and legal decisions.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Lee Zarzecki, also a member of the Emergency Operations Center, highlighted some of the decisions his team had to make. One of the first issues that came up, he said, was how to define a “critical business” when drafting the city’s stay-at-home order. 

The team was confronted with the question of whether dollar stores should be considered critical businesses under the definition of a grocery store, Zarzecki said. While these stores might typically be classified as retail stores, he said, after considering that many dollar stores are located in food deserts, the city allowed them to stay open because they sell food, toilet paper and other essentials.

Another example of the city approaching COVID issues with an “equity lens,” Zarzecki said, was the decision to decrease the prison population by giving preference for early release to low-level offenders, inmates with less than two months of their sentence remaining, those over age 60 and immunocompromised and pregnant inmates. As a result, Zarzecki said, between March 1 and April 15, the average daily number of inmates at Denver’s detention center and county jail fell roughly 41%. 

The EOC also considered race when opening COVID-19 testing sites, according to Zarzecki, and “really focused efforts on identifying locations for testing centers in minority communities” as people of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus. He added that the community testing site at the Montbello Recreation Center at Paco Sanchez Park came about as a result of this decision-making process.

Testing sites were a recurring theme during the presentation. When asked by Anaya whether any mistakes were made, Bronson said that the city’s testing site at the Pepsi Center seemed to make a lot of sense at the time. But as the city started polling people who came to the site, they got a lot of feedback saying the fire trucks, uniformed officers and Department of Safety logos outside the center were making many visitors uncomfortable, especially immigrants and people of color.

According to Bronson, they also realized they were taking unnecessary personal information from visitors at the Pepsi Center, “and we culled that down over time,” and that the center’s location was fine for people who worked downtown, but inconvenient for those who relied on public transit. The city eventually dismantled the site and switched to a community testing model with more locations in a variety of neighborhoods.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Reneé Goble, a litigator with the City Attorney’s Office, spoke about the city’s decision to issue an emergency curfew order in late May as protests in response to the death of George Floyd heated up in Denver. “People have a right to protest, and they even have the right to protest the police and the government. But the government still has an obligation to protect its citizens,” Goble said of the reasoning behind the curfew. 

Finally, Kwali Farbes, assistant section director of the City Attorney’s Office’s Municipal Operations Section, discussed what the section, which serves as legal counsel to city departments, agencies and elected officials, is doing to promote equity. Municipal Operations came up with a goal for team members to “take actions daily to promote equity and anti-racism,” Farbes said. The section has promoted this goal through regular small group discussions and trainings on race as it relates to the health care system, elections, affordable housing, immigration and other topics.

—Jessica Folker

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