‘Get us back to yellow'

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Officials discuss strategy for combating virus fatigue

  • Ouray County is currently at level orange on the state's reopening dial.
    Ouray County is currently at level orange on the state's reopening dial.
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Ouray County officials are struggling to promote COVID-19 precautions and compliance with tighter restrictions as pandemic fatigue increases.

During a Joint Policy Group meeting last week, county commissioners and members of the Ouray City Council and Ridgway Town Council debated ways to encourage social distancing, mask-wearing and other practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but acknowledged that some of their constituents aren’t willing to listen to those messages, and instead want the county to ignore the governor’s orders and allow businesses to operate without restrictions.

They agreed to center their efforts around f returning to the yellow level on the state’s dial. Ouray County moved to “orange: high risk” on Nov. 16, just one week after moving from “blue: caution” to “yellow: concern.” Each phase carries more intense restrictions, and moving back from orange to yellow would allow restaurants and other businesses to increase their capacity from 25 percent of legal occupancy to 50 percent.

Moving back to yellow would also allow the county to reapply for a variance to let more people into pools, which was lost when the state moved Ouray County to orange. The county would become eligible to apply for indodor variances, such as larger restaurant capacity, once it’s moved back to blue.

“The goal is we need to get down to yellow,” Ridgway Town Councilor Beth Lakin said, encouraging a clear message that “if you, as residents, do not make choices to get us down to yellow, we cannot apply for variances to help our businesses.”

In order to apply to return to a less-restrictive level on the state’s dial, Ouray County’s number of cases during a two-week period per capita must decrease and stay below the state’s threshold for two weeks. To be eligible to return to yellow, that rate must be below 175 cases per 100,000; as of Tuesday, the county’s rate was 324.3, according to the state’s dashboard. Ouray County’s positivity rate, which measures the percentage of all tests that come back positive, has already fallen to 2.8 percent, in the state’s green zone, due in part to increased testing availability.

Because the calculations are based on two-week periods, the numbers must fall and remain low before the change takes effect. “People want to see immediate change, and we have to be really clear that we have to sustain them,” Lakin said.

Officials said they needed to be more direct about connecting the dots for people who are reluctant to follow protocols such as wearing masks or social distancing, so they understand the impact of their decisions.

“If you do these things, it protects your job. If you do these things it protects your kids’ ability to go to school, and it gets our community back to the normalcy that we enjoyed better in July and August,” Ouray City Councilor John Wood said.

He compared the current efforts to messages and promotions this summer about masks and distancing, decisions that were prompted largely by fears of visitors spreading the virus here.

“The tourists haven’t done this to us, we’ve done this to ourselves because we didn’t keep the messaging up,” he said. Wood pointed to the prominent signage displayed this summer about mask mandates as an example of clear communication.

Ridgway Mayor John Clark also asked about using social media channels and flyers to distribute their pleas to people to follow the restrictions. Elected officials spent more than a week preparing and circulating a letter to be signed by community members and businesses, but noted during the meeting they didn’t feel it reached the people who are reluctant to follow the protocols or are tired of following the rules. “It’s not reaching the people we want to reach,” Clark said.

“We want to emphasize to those people who maybe are fatigued or aren’t so sure,” Lakin said. They agreed to focus on reminding people that keeping schools and businesses as open as possible requires compliance with the current regulations and maintaining social distancing and mask-wearing to limit transmission.

“The big moniker is get us back to yellow,” City Councilor Ethan Funk said. He also suggested reminding people that “what you do now affects what we do in four weeks.”

Logistics of the latest communications effort were assigned to County Administrator Connie Hunt, Ouray Acting City Administrator Melissa Drake and Ridgway Town Manager Preston Neill.

Ouray County Commission Chairman Don Batchelder also suggested starting a campaign encouraging people to “shop locally and order out frequently.”

“I have had a number of restaurants contact me, and I know they are all hurting,”  he said. “For some of them this is a slow season, so it’s not quite as bad as it might have been, but they are hurting and this is a long-term thing.”

While much of the conversation during the nearly two-hour virtual meeting centered on reducing COVID cases to help local businesses stay open, the few members of the public who participated said officials’ efforts fall short of actually supporting those businesses.

Ouray resident Bette Maurer said there hasn’t been sufficient communication to businesses about whether and how personal protective equipment purchased by the county will be available, and about the temporary sales tax break for bars and restaurants announced hours before the meeting began.

Others said local officials can’t help businesses while complying with state mandates, and questioned their focus on messaging and talking points.

“Are you going to try to really help these businesses stay in line or are you going to continue to follow the mandate of our governor, who is one of a few governors in this country who is really screwing us, the locals, to the wall?” asked Scott Carlisle who lives on Log Hill. He said the virus “sure doesn’t seem to be affecting us locally as radically as you folks seem to try to want to deal with it.”

“You’re spending so much time chit-chatting about how you’re going to get the messaging out, you know,” he said. “We need to find a way to be more effective with your time, and spending less money on this thing and spending more time on helping the businesses stay open and fighting the government that is pushing you guys’ buttons to the point that you’re not doing what’s necessary to keep your constituents financially healthy and keep the county growing in a healthy way.”

Despite reminders from Batchelder and Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd that the current restrictions are imposed by the state and not the county, Carlisle and two others who spoke up during the meeting argued, as they have repeatedly previously, that local focus should instead be on challenging those regulations.

During the Joint Policy Group meeting, Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said if the county defied the state, it could lose its CARES Act funding, which has been used to help pay for testing, personal protective equipment and other pandemic-related costs. A bill introduced Monday at the state legislature’s special session would allocate millions in relief money to businesses and organizations, but only in counties that are “in good-faith compliance” with the state’s public health orders.

Commissioners in Weld County, which is currently at level red, have publicly refused to enforce the state’s orders there.

“I’m sitting here and I’m listening to the audacity of saying you’re going to save businesses, as you are actively doing your best to drive them into the ground,” said Jessie Orvis of Ridgway. “I don’t care what color you put us in, feel free to put us in whatever color you want. We are done. I speak for many of us when I say we will not comply. We will not allow our businesses to be run into the ground for this nonsense any longer.” She offered to “back up any other business in this county” that agreed.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work here in Ouray County.