Out-of-town guests laud campground’s hospitality; less-than-pleased county officials issue warning
Houston massage therapist Ashley Sellers was looking for advice on where to stay in Ouray when she posted on social media May 4.
“Sorry we are from Texas they opened almost everything here,” she wrote. “I was reading a post here earlier that suggested lodging may be closed?” she posted, asking for clarification.
Locals responded with an answer “definitely closed until at least May 15th,” one said. Another posted a hotline phone number for Ouray County’s COVID-19 hotline, and others advised that “all short term rentals are still closed in Ouray County.”
Ouray County health officials adopted a public health order on March 20 restricting short-term lodging to discourage visitors from coming to the area and potentially bringing the virus from more populated areas with fewer restrictions. A lack of distancing requirements in states where Ouray County visitors usually hail from - including Texas and other Southern states - was cited as a reason for adopting the policy. No bookings for outsiders who aren’t “essential workers” or for non-locals who are staying for less than 30 days, the order said. Another order asked seasonal residents to quarantine for 14 days if they decided to come back, but encouraged them to stay away for now. The state had also adopted a “safer at home” order on April 27, asking residents to continue to socially distance, and also said residents should limit their own recreation to within io miles of their homes.
Five days after the post seeking advice about lodging and receiving the answer that short-term lodging was closed, Sellers posted another photo of her Golden retriever playing in water, announcing she had arrived. She continued to post on her vacation.
On May 13, she posted a review of her vacation on the “Ouray, Colorado” Facebook page, which has since been removed.
“For anyone thinking of coming, we did not feel restricted in the slightest,” she wrote, listing all the activities they enjoyed. “We hiked everywhere. And stayed at KOA with no problem!”
Sellers was one of several guests at the Ouray KOA during the period when the county’s restrictions on short-term lodging were in effect, according to reviews from other vacationers who indicated they liked the campground and the cabins.
“In light of COVID-19 the hospitality we experienced was above & beyond our expectations and if folks choose not to stay here it’s their loss,” one reviewer posted on April 10.
Ouray County’s policy limiting shortterm rentals was more restrictive than the state’s public health orders at the time; it expired on May 15. Hotels, campgrounds and other lodging establishments are now allowed to operate at 5o percent capacity until the end of the month, with strict cleaning protocols and a 24-hour waiting period between visitors in a particular room required.
But when the order was in effect, the KOA devised a plan to have anyone who wanted to stay there sign an agreement designed to make their operations fit the parameters of the county’s public health order. To stay, campers needed to sign a document stating they were either staying for longer than 3o days, or that they were essential visitors or primary residents of the county. Guests signed a 31-day lease, no matter how long their actual stay lasted.
While other lodging establishments lit up “no vacancy” signs and left rooms empty, laying off their housekeeping staff, the KOA’s sign on the highway advertised it was open for the entire time the order was in effect.
“The rules are the rules,” said Julie Duckles, who owns Timber Ridge Lodge in Ouray with her husband, Brian. “It’s a heck of a workaround,” she said of the documents the KOA had guests sign.
KOA owner Troy Crosson said he believes the business was in compliance with the order and that he hired an attorney to draw up the paperwork. He also said he estimates his business has lost $145,000 in cancellations due to COVID-19.
Crosson said it’s not his responsibility to determine whether someone who stays at the KOA fits the “essential” category specified by the public health order.
“We can’t police people," he said. "As long as they sign this document, we don't have any control over them.”
Crosson also said he's made accommodations to help people who had no other choice but to stay put during this time, including a traveler whose vehicle broke down and who stayed for five days.
He also said he believes the complaints to the county were made by a person who has a grudge against the KOA, and that the campground can operate according to state rules because state park campgrounds were opened up for stays recently.
As for his recommendation to other lodging owners in the county who remained closed during this time while he continued to operate, he said his advice is, “Get a good attorney.”
Crosson also said he plans on running for county commissioner.
As a result of the posted reviews, complaints received from individuals about the KOA’s continued bookings, as well as other evidence, Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery issued a warning notice to KOA owners Troy and Penny Crosson, who purchased the campground in January.
“It has been found that the Ouray KOA may be in violation of Ouray County Public Health Order No. 5,” Kingery's letter said. "Specifically, having overnight guests sign a 31-day lease to circumvent public health orders.”
The letter, dated May 15, also advised the Crossons they could voluntarily comply and that no legal action would be taken. The penalties for violating the order include a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months imprisonment.
This wasn’t the first time the KOA was examined for its procedures during the short-term lodging public health order.
Kingery said he referred several complaints to the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office, and received word from Sheriff Lance FitzGerald that he and Undersheriff Ted Wolfe had visited the KOA in response.
FitzGerald said he visited the KOA three or four times, and Wolfe said he responded at least three times. Kingery said he referred complaints three times.
“Every time we went out there, it just turned out to be their staff,” FitzGerald said. Troy Crosson estimated the KOA has had roughly 30 employees staying at the campground during this time.
The sheriff’s office did not check employment of these campers to verify if they, in fact, did work at the KOA. But FitzGerald said he obtained copies of the documents the KOA was using to justify the bookings and forwarded them to Kingery.
When asked if the sheriff’s office had talked with campers about their purpose in staying at the KOA during these visits, FitzGerald said he didn’t think so, but said the management gave him tours and explained the paperwork they were using. The sheriff’s office also responded to these complaints during the week, he said, not on the weekends.
FitzGerald also responded to a complaint regarding individuals being able to continue booking online with the KOA during the order. He said KOA staff told him they didn’t realize the reservations could still be booked through online sites.
Kingery visited the KOA to deliver the letter on May 14, accompanied by FitzGerald. This was after the health department received more complaints, including one two weeks ago from a woman who had checked in to the KOA and then found out from locals that there was a lodging order in place.
“She ended up leaving early and canceling her reservation,” Kingery said.
Kingery said the burden of proof in this situation is on both the lodging establishment and the lodgers themselves, but it does not seem the county will enforce this retroactively.
Kingery said the lease the KOA was using and the statement it was having lodgers sign doesn’t jibe with the spirit of the order — one that was adopted to protect locals from a potential surge in the virus.
“We saw that as a big risk, so limiting the amount of people coming to the county who aren’t from here, that was the intention of limiting the short-term lodging so we don’t have a bunch of people all getting sick at once,” he said.
The county has not issued any other warni ng letters in relation to the public health orders, Kingery said. To other lodging owners who complied with the order, Kingery said he's thankful and he recognizes it's been a hardship for them.
“I would thank them for doing the right thing,” he said.
Even though leaving 19 rooms empty as the busy season ramped up has hurt the business financially, and she’s not sure if they will even be able to employ a second housekeeper at the Timber Ridge Lodge this year, Duckles said she’s not sorry her business complied with the order.
“We would never do this,” Duckles said . “We had the respect for the orders that were in place in the county where we're doing business.”