The summer of discontent

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Nixing of holiday events, FJ Summit will cool off Ouray’s normally hot tourist month of July

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Everything is geared toward July.

Hoteliers know sparse bookings in the spring will give way to crowded calendars. Restaurant owners conduct deep cleanings or close entirely after a spasm of winter tourism because late summer nights and long waiting lists are on the horizon. The nearly $317,000 in sales tax revenue the city of Ouray raked in last July was more than the first four months of the year combined.

But everything will change this July.

Campgrounds and RV parks could still fill up as visitors seek refuge from stifling heat elsewhere and regional residents itching to get out of town make Ouray an easy day or overnight trip. But the scrapping of this year’s Fourth of July festivities, coupled with the cancellation of the multi-day FJ Summit in the middle of the month, will take a big bite out of the local economy during a month businesses regard as critical to their fiscal fortunes.

The Ouray City Council on Monday unanimously agreed to nix the morning parade, afternoon water fights and nighttime fireworks display on Independence Day, concluding the city would be creating too much of a health risk by hosting events that draw thousands of people.

“I don’t think I can, in any good conscience, vote for something that has the ability to literally kill people,” Councilor Glenn Boyd said. “This is what we’re doing if we do any sort of social gathering of a large group of people.”

The decision came four days after directors of the FJ Summit, a five-day event that brings more than 200 Toyota owners to Ouray every summer, announced they were pulling the plug on this year’s event, scheduled for July 15-19.

“We waited with optimism as long as possible but given the current situation and complexities of permits, insurance, gatherings, meals, restricted trail rides and the safety & wellbeing of our participants and the community of Ouray, after careful consideration we are canceling the 2020 FJ Summit,” organizers announced on the FJ Summit’s website.

Seth Kovanic, the director of the FJ Summit, did not respond to an email from the Plaindealer seeking more information. But city and business leaders said event organizers told them the primary reason they were halting this year’s event is because they couldn’t find an insurance company that would provide coverage for such a large gathering in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event has been held in Ouray for 13 years, bringing off-road enthusiasts to town for guided rides and clinics. Participants raise thousands of dollars each year for local nonprofit organizations and law enforcement, as well as student scholarships. Summit directors said they will still make their donations this year.

The loss of the FJ Summit and Fourth of July events is a one-two gut punch to Ouray County businesses hungry for a rebound after two months of an economic standstill triggered by the coronavirus.

City councilors signaled in a May 7 work session they were likely to cancel Independence Day festivities. But they held off on a formal vote for 11 days, hoping they might hear information from Ouray County Unified Command leaders that could leave open the possibility of even a scaled-down holiday.

They didn’t.

Boyd, who serves as the county’s emergency manager, said while he couldn’t say for sure, he would be surprised if gatherings of more than 50 people were allowed in Colorado by July 4. State and local health orders currently restrict gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

“Letting people come in is one thing. Throwing events together for people is another,” he said.

Police Chief Jeff Wood said he believed Ouray officers could manage a crowd of 4,000 to 6,000 people. Beyond that, he said he would need to call in crowd and traffic control help from Montrose, something Ouray traditionally has done. This year, however, Wood questioned whether those officers would be available.

City Attorney Carol Viner noted that while Ouray largely is immune from lawsuits under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, it risks waiving that immunity if it acts in a “grossly negligent” manner. Hosting events that bring in thousands of people and potentially putting them at risk for infection could trigger that waiver, she said.

Mayor Pro Tem John Wood pointed out that both Telluride and Silverton have called off their events. If Ouray were to proceed, it could potentially draw triple the number of people to which it’s accustomed.

“We can’t accommodate that in the best of times, let alone in the situation we’re faced with now,” he said.

He also noted that local forests are currently under a fire ban, and given how dry Ouray’s spring has been thus far, it would be irresponsible for the city to put on a fireworks display.

Nancy Nixon said she didn’t think the city, which has indicated it doesn’t have money in its budget to fund a fireworks display, would have any trouble raising money to pay for a show. She also said she thought “social distancing would be pretty easy for this.”

Ouray Chalet Inn owner Lora Slawitschka said she doesn’t believe the city has the infrastructure to support the crowds.