Ouray County will proceed with its normal schedule of plowing high-country roads, after lengthy discussions about delaying the maintenance to discourage visitors from flocking to the area and potentially bringing more COVID-19 contagion.
The proposal to delay plowing the roads or even barricading them to stop access was met with protest from members of the public, including those who own Jeep rental companies, lodging establishments and other tourism-based businesses eager to begin the season when they make most of their living for the year. Members of the county’s Unified Command had previously asked county commissioners to consider postponing opening those roads at an earlier meeting in April, and the decision was delayed until now.
The virtual meeting commissioners held Tuesday had 162 attendees, so many that the original capacity of too attendees on the county’s Zoom account had to be upgraded, and the meeting was paused to expand capacity. Some attendees said they were concerned about ideas to blockade certain roads because of access issues for locals and legal issues with limiting access to public lands. Others said they want the roads opened as soon as possible to allow the local economy to bounce back after limiting visitors due to COVID-19.
Commissioners ultimately decided not to approve spending of what Interim Road and Bridge Superintendent Bill Frownfelter estimated would cost about $6,500 for barricades, but asked staff to be prepared to source materials from both private and public entities in the event an emergency closure is
County Attorney Carol Viner said she is in discussions with other county attorneys in the region over the legality of road closures. She said any barricade is a liability to the county. The county can legally close a road for a certain purpose, but multiple road closures for one broad reason would need further investigation.
County Commissioner Ben Tisdel also asked road and bridge department staff to coordinate with their counterparts in San Juan, Hinsdale and San Miguel counties, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, to determine what their plans were for reopening high alpine routes. Road Foreman Chad Rilling said, considering the current conditions, crews could have the road to Yankee Boy cleared by May zo, barring major weather changes. Crews have traditionally cleared that route first, as well as the road to Red Mountain Town, before clearing Engineer, Corkscrew and Imogene passes. Imogene Pass is the last to open, usually by July 4, though last year’s epic snowpack and avalanche debris delayed its opening for weeks.
Lodging and quarantine orders to expire
Commissioners have recommended that two public health orders limiting lodging bookings and requiring anyone who returns to Ouray County to quarantine for 14 days be allowed to expire on May 15.
Public Health Director Tanner Kingery proposed allowing lodging establishments to open at 3o percent capacity starting May 16 and full capacity on May 29. Cleaning guidelines and a waiting period of 24 hours between guests in a room will be implemented.
The health department’s proposal for reopening lodging also requires businesses to:
• Keep a copy of identification for the head of household for 3o days for the purposes of epidemiological tracking by the health department.
• Increase sanitation in common areas.
• Provide and require face coverings for employees at all times.
• Encourage guests to cover their faces while indoors in common areas or places where social distancing can’t be guaranteed.
• Enforce 6-foot social distancing in common areas.
• Keep meeting rooms and pools or hot tubs closed.
• Serve all food as take-out (so, no breakfast buffets).
• Keep a cleaning log. Commissioners also said they support letting quarantine orders for part-time residents coming into the county expire on May 15. If this happens, residents who start quarantine before May is do not have to fulfill the full 14 days, but can stop quarantining on May 15.
Though the county’s public health order limiting short-term rentals from taking new bookings is expected to be allowed to expire on May 15, there’s a new source of confusion about whether they can operate, originating from the latest set of state public health orders. In the “safe at home” order issued last week, a section specifically states that hotels are considered “critical businesses,” but short-term vacation-style rentals, including private homes rented for less than 3o days, are not considered critical unless they’re used to house healthcare workers.
Several different types of lodging could fall into the category set by the state, and several businesses in Ouray could be prevented from opening even as the county lifts its orders. The state orders don’t expire until May 27.
Viner and Kingery said they will be working on a better understanding of the orders to respond to multiple lodgers who expressed confusion and concern about the state orders during the meeting.
Commissioner Don Batchelder warned that masks and social distancing must become the norm in order for openings to continue. He said if people are not exercising proper safety measures, the government may have to act. Commissioners discussed the use of signage to remind people to wear masks and use social distancing, as well as potentially acquiring handwashing stations to put around town to encourage sanitation.
Mesa variances from the state to allow restaurants to open at partial capacity with specific protocols. Some public comments urged the county to consider applying for a variance here if lodging is reopened, so restaurants could also offer more than take-out and expand to allow outdoor dining and reduced indoor dining. Other commenters asked the commissioners to seek a variance regarding the 10-mile travel limit the state issued for recreation, or clarification from the county as to whether that order will be enforced.
Virtual-meetings discussion postponed
A work session scheduled for Tuesday after the board’s regular meeting was postponed due to the amount of time the regular meeting ran over as commissioners discussed public health orders and road plowing at length and listened to public comments.
The work session had been scheduled to discuss establishing a virtual-meeting policy and getting back to in-person meetings.
However, on that subject, Viner clarified comments she made last week regarding virtual meetings, in which she encouraged commissioners to consider how to return to in-person meetings as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. The commissioners have held virtual meetings under an emergency resolution since the state enacted the limit on mass gatherings, meaning groups are limited to to or fewer people.
“Something got misconstrued in my report,” Viner said. “I did not say Zoom meetings were illegal. What I said was: But for the emergency, Zoom meetings would probably not pass the standards under COMA, which is the Colorado Open Meetings law. Absent legislative changes and we come out of this emergency, we must go back to in-person meetings. But they are not illegal now because we are in an emergency. I wrote those resolutions, and I certainly would not have written a resolution that I felt was illegal. As this emergency continues forward, it’s not necessarily an emergency any longer. It’s more of a reality, and we need to move back to having in-person meetings. That is what I said, and it got misconstrued. And I apologize for that,” Viner said.
Erin McIntyre contributed to this report.