Ouray County plans on loosening restrictions in relation to COVID-19 on a different timeline than the rest of the state, which will relax "stay-at-home" orders and transition to a "safer at home" phase on April 27 under a plan announced by Gov. Jared Polis on Monday.
But Ouray County officials are setting up a different tiered approach for reopening businesses, and on Tuesday commissioners recommended extending at least some of its public health orders until May 15. The orders were set to expire on April 30 - including limitations on mass gatherings, closure of non-essential personal services including hair salons and massage therapy, and requirements for seasonal residents and second homeowners to quarantine for 14 days if they return to the county. They also include an order to limit short-term lodging to essential workers and not allow new booking reservations at this time.
Commissioners plan to meet Friday to discuss the public health orders more closely, according to comments from Commissioner Ben Tisdel during the multi-agency meeting held with members of Unified Command on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, commissioners didn't take formal action on extending the public health orders, but their suggestion - with Commissioner John Peters expressing reservations - contrasted most of the public opinion voiced during the virtual meeting, attended by 74 people.
The orders, issued over the course of the last month by Public Health Director Tanner Kingery, could be allowed to expire on April 30 as originally scheduled, or extended to May 15 or for even longer.
Kingery told commissioners letting the orders expire could increase the COVID-19 transmission rate, resulting in sick visitors taking up hospital beds. He said an extension to May 15 would allow for time to collect more data via testing and a new public health survey he plans to roll out.
This survey, meant for residents to voluntarily share symptoms with the health department, is different than another one set up by the state health department this week. Kingery said the local survey will target identifying pockets of possible virus on a neighborhood level in Ouray County.
Kingery previously said he would want to see at least two weeks worth of data showing a decline in virus activity in the area before considering loosening orders. Montrose County has seen an uptick in cases and deaths in the past week.
The decision whether to end or extend the order ultimately rests with Kingery, though he has based the issuance of the orders on input from commissioners, County Administrator Connie Hunt and Unified Command, a group consisting of Kingery, County Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd, Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood and Ridgway Town Administrator Preston Neill. Unified Command members are communicating with business owners on a scaled plan of how they could plan to open safely, including hotel owners, according to Wood's comments at the Wednesday meeting.
But some said they were concerned that some businesses couldn't wait much longer to open.
“I am concerned there are businesses that will not make it that far out,” Peters said of the May 15 target.
He said businesses can best understand how to tailor safety procedures to their unique situations, and suggested people consider how to protect themselves individually.
Public comment during the meeting mostly came from local business owners and residents advocating to allow local businesses to reopen as soon as possible.
“I don’t think the self-employed and small businesses are being listened to,” said Ouray resident Don Wild, who owns a home inspection business.
Some argued people should be responsible for themselves and a lockdown shouldn’t continue to limit contagion.
"Each individual has the ability to decide how open they want to be, because the reality is younger and middle-aged people, if they get it, it's going to be like the flu if they even have any symptoms, said Michael Trahan of Ridgway. "The answer doesn't necessarily have to be to keep everybody locked down:'
“At some point personal responsibility has to take a role in this. If you have issues with your immune system or are older, take precautions. Stay home if you are concerned, but at some point we people who have to earn a living must get back to our lives,” said Lee Ann Parden, a Ouray Realtor.
Tom Elliston, owner of Black Bear Manor in Ouray, noted that Montrose didn't shut down lodging and suggested the commissioners compare the Montrose County infection rate with Ouray County's to see if the orders made any difference. He said Ouray's economy will crash if lodging is not reopened.
Others said they didn't want their own health situation to dictate the continued shutdown for others.
“I’m in the age group that is vulnerable, so I will continue to quarantine, but that doesn’t mean the rest of you have to. When I do come out of quarantine and go downtown, I want to see the City of Ouray looking like Ouray,” Ouray County resident Jerry Serman said.
John Moss of Divide Ranch asked for the orders to stay in place until June.
Ouray resident Dolgio Nergui said she is concerned that emergency first responders will be overloaded and exposed to the virus with the opening of businesses.
There are still roughly 30 tests available locally through Mountain Medical Center, which ordered another 25 tests this week, according to clinic staff. The county is continuing to try to get widespread testing and plans to host a community testing event with the National Guard. But Boyd said the la ck of available tests is holding up those plans.
"The moment that they have access to tests they can be out here in 48 hours to do those tests," Boyd told the group Wednesday. "The planning's ready to go ... we just don't have the tests."