Boulder County health officials ‘strongly encourage’ alternative to in-person petitioning

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People line up Friday, May 1, to sign a petition in North Boulder Park. (Shay Castle / Boulder Beat)

Friday, May 8, 2020 (Updated Saturday, May 9)

Boulder County’s health department has advised against in-person petitioning efforts underway in Boulder, adding their concerns to those of law enforcement. Despite the guidance, circulators say they intend to keep collecting signatures since it remains the only path to November’s ballot.

That may change. Two council members this week asked that the issue be addressed again following the release of health guidance, which circulators, the media and elected officials have been requesting for weeks.

Petitioning has already been debated — twice. Council members couldn’t agree to place measures on the ballot through a majority vote, and security concerns sunk support for online signature gathering. With no other options and a June 5 deadline looming, petition organizers cautiously began soliciting support.

Two groups contacted Boulder County Public Health asking the agency to weigh in on the advisability of ongoing efforts. After deferring to legal authorities, BCPH spokeswoman Chana Goussetis this week suggested that “individuals should request guidance” from from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A CDPHE spokesperson pledged to weigh in by week’s end but did not follow up. Goussetis responded via email on behalf of BCPH.

“Given community transmission of COVID-19 and strict CDPHE social distancing mandates, BCPH cannot endorse any activity that will generate a high volume of person-to-person contacts such as in-person signature collection and particularly door-to-door collection of signatures,” Goussetis wrote. “All signature collection efforts must comply with applicable public health orders, and BCPH strongly encourages organizers and individuals to explore, to the extent permitted by law, signature-collection methods that avoid in-person contact.”

Nonetheless, without a viable alternative, petition organizers said they will keep going.

“Council has provided no other way for us to get on the ballot,” wrote the No Eviction Without Representation team, in response to emailed questions. “Direct democracy must not be allowed to die, even during a crisis.”

NEWR and other groups have put protective measures in place. Patrick Murphy, the organizer of End the Muni, is providing single-use pens at signing events, maintaining six feet of distance and requiring signers to use tissues as a barrier between their hands and the petition. Circulators for Bedrooms Are For People are going door-to-door, masked and gloved, to collect signatures only from residents who have requested visits via an online form. They are coordinating with NEWR and End the Muni to present all three petitions to interested parties.

Those precautions seem like the “safest” way to do petitioning right now, said Lindsay Diamond, director of communications for BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado. But given what we know about COVID-19 — that person-to-person contact is the predominant way coronavirus spreads — and all we don’t know, Diamond believes there’s no 100% safe way to do in-person petitioning.

“There is always a risk when you have any sort of close contact with another human right now,” Diamond said. “The idea that you’d have people going house to house to give people an opportunity to sign petitions, that is really scary.”

Circulators need to collect thousands of signatures in coming weeks, creating thousands of points of contact — each one a chance for transmission. It’s a classic disease vector model, Diamond said, comparing it to the Diamond Princess cruise ship where coronavirus spread unchecked in the early days of the pandemic, infecting hundreds and killing a dozen.

The ship became a case study, revealing the dangers of asymptomatic transmission. That is what makes petitioning particularly worrisome to Diamond.
“You cannot assure yourself or someone that you haven’t been exposed and therefore the potential to be asymptomatic carrier,” she said. In the “worst-case scenario … Boulder becomes the cruise ship and you have this … person … going place to place carrying things” — a clipboard, pens, or at the very least, the petition itself — “that are passed back and forth.

“From a purely science and public health standpoint … it’s a bit of a nightmare.”

The exact level of risk is hard to pin down, given the unknowns. Transmission is less likely outdoors, experts have said. Viral load also plays a factor: the longer someone is exposed to an infected person, the greater the chance of catching the virus.

Hundreds of residents have decided that participating in the democratic process outweighs any health concerns. But significant portions of the voting population — those in higher-risk groups such as older adults and the immunocompromised, for instance — may feel they have no choice but to stay home and forego their constitutional rights. Given COVID’s unequal impact on communities of color and the inverse correlation between income and health in Boulder County, the situation is concerning in terms of equity and access.

City officials have been careful to toe the line in offering advice to petition circulators. They cannot explicitly prohibit the activity, which would be a violation of First Amendment Rights. But neither can they endorse the practice in opposition to the advice of the Boulder County sheriff and district attorney offices, Boulder’s police chief and, now, Boulder County Public Health.

Representatives from NEWR were initially denied an advocacy permit to gather signatures on the Pearl Street Mall. Following inquiries from organizers and Boulder Beat, staff clarified that a permit is not required to petition in public spaces.

“Advocacy permits on the Mall simply provide a reservation system to manage the many things usually happening on the mall,” wrote Deputy City Attorney Sandra Llanes, “but they aren’t required.”

Colorado’s Secretary of State warned against petitioning, 9News reported. The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to multiple requests to confirm that report, instead emailing a prepared statement.

“We recognize the challenges posed by the coronavirus in collecting signatures,” spokeswoman Betsy Hart wrote. “We are working with Governor Polis and the Attorney General on potential options to move forward. Ultimately, any option must be both fair and constitutionally valid.”

Locally, council members Aaron Brockett and Rachel Friend asked that council revisit a discussion to place measures on the ballot directly, in light of Boulder County Health’s newly issued guidance. Elected officials have until September to do so, long after the deadlines for signatures have passed.

Circulators have continued to push for council action as well.

“While we appreciate any response from BCPH on this issue, we find it unreasonable that they are putting the onus on community organizers to do something that only the City Council can legally do,” wrote Chelsea Castellano, with Bedrooms Are for People. “Volunteer organizers do not have the legal authority to make the voter-approved changes that are needed right now to protect our community’s health and ensure that voters can safely participate in direct democracy — only the City Council has that power.”

How to sign the petitions

Schedule a home visit from circulators using an online form
(available on the websites of all three campaigns)
newrboulder.com
bedroomsareforpeople.com
endthemuni.org

Signing event schedule for End the Muni

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Park – 490 Mohawk Drive, west of Frasier Meadows
May 13, 14, 15 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Viele Lake – Gilllespie Drive and Table Mesa near Fairview High School
May 20, 21, 22 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Wonderland Lake – North Broadway west of Sumac
May 27, 28, 29 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Signing event schedule for No Eviction Without Representation

Saturday, May 9
Howard Heuston Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Harlow Platts Park, Noon to 2 p.m.
Scott Carpenter Park, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sanitas Trailhead, 1-2 p.m.
Martin Park, Noon to 4 p.m.

Sunday, May 10
Scott Carpenter Park, 11 a.m. to 2 pm.
Pearl Street Mall (Pearl and 14th Street) 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Author’s note: This article has been updated to add signing dates for NEWR and to clarify that the deadline to remit signatures for two of the campaigns is June 5, not May 5.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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