Ouray County in retreat

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Governments declare states of emergency

  • Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery demonstrates how to wear a mask to Carl Dismant, whose grandmother died in the 19918 Spanish flu pandemic and said he's trying to be cautious.
    Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery demonstrates how to wear a mask to Carl Dismant, whose grandmother died in the 19918 Spanish flu pandemic and said he's trying to be cautious.
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Ouray County, the city of Ouray and the town of Ridgway all declared states of emergency this week, giving themselves broader power to order closures and restrictions in the name of public safety and the ability to tap into federal and state disaster relief assistance.

In a matter of days, the strategy to respond to the coronavirus threat pivoted from the reliance on confirmed cases to prevention. A lack of testing resources, combined with positive cases identified in other Colorado mountain towns with tourism-based economies, led officials to try to shut everything down before the undetected virus could spread.

Social isolation is the recommendation at this time, with groups of no more than io people and enough space between individuals to allow 6 feet of “safe space” to avoid community spread of the disease.

All government buildings and many public restrooms have been closed, and some public services will be reduced in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-io, a virus that has yet to officially show itself here but which health officials believe will eventually arrive.

County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery told the Ouray City Council and citizens who gathered for a Monday afternoon meeting that the county has ordered coronavirus test kits, but those limited supplies are going elsewhere.

“Unfortunately those are backordered,” he said. “The entire nation wants test kits. We’re at the bottom of the food chain, unfortunately, because we have no cases and we’re small.”

City Councilor Glenn Boyd, who also serves as the county’s emergency manager, said it could be mid-April before the county acquires test kits. The locations closest to Ouray County where testing is being conducted are Telluride, Norwood and Delta, he said. Kingery said the testing facilities require patients to meet strict criteria and be pre-approved by a medical provider.

During a multi-agency coordination virtual meeting Wednesday afternoon, Boyd said the county has requested assistance from the Colorado National Guard with testing, as neighboring San Miguel County received this week This would likely include a five-hour testing window for those who meet the criteria.

Whether someone tests positive or negative for coronavirus, health officials’ recommendation at this time is the same - stay home, stay away from others and keep to yourself for two weeks.

If you don’t know if you have it, “treat yourself like you’re a positive,” Kingery said.

Dr. Joel Gates of Mountain Medical Center said he’s sure the virus is here.

“Of course our county doesn’t have any positives because we don’t have any testing for them,” he said.

His office has responded to patients with symptoms by meeting them outside in the parking lot and screening them, to keep them from contaminating the office for other patients. So far, he said he hasn’t seen anyone with obvious signs of COVID-19, but they have other respiratory issues or colds and it’s complicated by allergy season beginning.

Gates said he anticipates results from Telluride’s testing this week, expected on Saturday, will help inform medical providers of the situation here.

The situation is changing rapidly, according to Montrose Memorial Hospital emergency room Dr. Drew Yeowell, who said staff is meeting twice a day to try to keep up.

At this time, health officials have prioritized social isolation to keep the most vulnerable populations from contracting the illness from those who may not even realize they’re sick. Some have reported mild cases, and others have no symptoms at all but can be contagious.

City Administrator Justin Perry on Monday took the extraordinary step of closing the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, the county’s most popular tourist attraction that serves as a significant source of revenue for the city. The idling of the hot springs and associated fitness center comes during what would normally be the start of a busy spring break season for the pool and the city.

“In the end, everything really is about life safety,” Perry said in an interview Tuesday. “For me, that was No. 1, was ensuring I was doing everything in my power to save lives and protect the health and safety of the public — not only patrons, but workers.”

The pool, City Hall and the Community Center will remain closed until at least April 3, when city leaders will reassess conditions and determine whether to reopen city facilities or extend the closures.

He said all pool employees will keep their jobs through at least April 3, noting there is plenty of work to be done, including lifeguard training and maintenance, cleaning and sanitizing of the pool and fitness center The pool was scheduled to close for a week in mid-April for annual maintenance and deep cleaning. Instead, it’ll be done now.

Should the pool closure extend beyond April 3, Perry acknowledged the city may have to “realign” and reassess what to do with those jobs.

The city pulled in roughly $170,orio in revenue from the pool in March and April of last year, according to Finance and Administrative Services Director Melissa Drake.

Public restrooms at Citizens State Bank in Ouray and in public parks will remain open, but the restrooms in the Community Center are closed. Trash pickup in public places has been reduced to two days a week, and maintenance of the city’s sewer lagoons has been scaled back because of concerns that COVID-19 can be transferred through sewage.

Ouray police will limit face-to-face interactions with citizens, suspending VIN inspections for the time being and responding to more calls for service by phone. City councilors will conduct their meetings using a remote video conferencing service.

Anticipating a potentially sharp decline in sales and lodging tax revenue, city leaders are prepared to dip into roughly $3 million worth of emergency reserves. Perry said he will meet with department heads to identify areas where they can reduce or suspend expenses. The city is planning to postpone some capital projects and expenditures.

“We are going to see financial impacts, I believe, of pretty significant magnitude,” Perry said.

During a tense, 2 1/2 hour emergency meeting later Monday afternoon — with nearly 40 attendees sitting in chairs spaced across the 4-H Center’s main room — county commissioners heard from Kingery and Boyd before unanimously declaring an emergency. The resolution allows the county to have expanded powers, and allows Kingery to make unilateral decisions related to preserving public safety during this epidemic.

The county cited recent decisions by neighboring communities, including San Miguel County and Gunnison County, to close facilities and limit public interactions to try to limit spread of the virus. Boyd said it’s especially concerning because individuals can be infected with the illness and not show symptoms, but can spread the germs to others. There are still questions about how long the virus can live on certain surfaces, but Boyd said the information he has indicates it can remain airborne for three hours and on surfaces for days.

Though there have not been any positive tests confirmed in Ouray County by the state health department, that doesn’t mean it’s not already circulating here, officials said.

Commissioners discussed the powers they have in an emergency like this, and specifically the authority Kingery has as health department director. This includes issuing orders limiting the size of public gatherings and shutting down access to limit contagion. The multi-agency coordination group plans to meet again on Thursday morning and discuss potential policies regarding hotels, Kingery said. By Wednesday afternoon, at least six local hotels had told the tourism office they were closing in relation to the virus concerns.

During the commissioners’ meeting, Gov. Jared Polis’ office announced he was issuing an order to close all bars and restaurants except for take-out orders. The order also applies to coffee shops, gyms and movie theaters.

Comments from the audience indicated some have concerns about Kingery’s ability to lead, about the health department’s lack of regular information updates to the public at-large, and about the lack of testing available here and visitors continuing to come to the area.

“I’m very concerned about delegating the authority to protect us to Tanner because he hasn’t led our school, he hasn’t led our pool, we continue to defer to others,” said Ridgway resident John Countryman, who attended the meeting wearing a mask. He criticized Kingery’s leadership in the previous weeks and said he didn’t feel comfortable with him leading the county’s decisions on responding to the virus, citing concerns with communication.

In response to the frustrations expressed about the lack of regular information updates, Commission Chairman Don Batchelder asked Kingery if he would be willing to guarantee regular updates on the county’s website daily.

Kingery agreed to provide those updates by noon every day on the county’s website.

During the multi-agency meeting on Wednesday, WestCO Dispatch Executive Director Mandy Stollsheimer said the center is receiving many phone calls from Ouray County residents who don’t have another number to call for information. WestCO handles 9u calls for Ouray County and others in the region, and Stollsheimer asked Ouray County officials to establish a hotline.

Commissioners closed county buildings to the public beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday. They instructed County Administrator Connie Hunt to plan with individual departments to determine how work could continue, either in closed offices or remotely, and how to assure employees can maintain a safe distance from others as they work or if they can continue to work from home.

The town of Ridgway on Tuesday became the last local government to declare a disaster emergency, with Town Administrator Preston Neill issuing the order which can last seven days without council approval. The town board is expected to meet soon — a date hadn’t been identified as of Wednesday afternoon — to consider extending the emergency through the end of the epidemic.

Town Hall and public restrooms are closed. Town parks remain open.

County officials passed out masks to a small group of senior citizens who gathered for Neighbor to Neighbor’s weekly luncheon at the Ouray Community Center on Monday. It was the last luncheon for at least the rest of the month.

“You’re our at-risk population,” Kingery told the group, before he and representatives from Ouray County EMS and Boyd answered questions for the group.

“This is not your run-of-the-mill virus. This is a highly contagious virus,” Boyd told them, noting along with Kingery that the elderly are most at risk for contracting COVID-19 and needing hospitalization.

Those who gathered varied in how concerned they were about the coronavirus.

“At my age, I just ride with the tide,” said Ken McKenzie who lives just outside Ouray.

“We need to do all we can to protect ourselves and keep it from spreading,” said Russ Metzger, who lives in Ouray and said he believes the virus has been “hyped up” by the media.

“We’ll abide by the rules and be careful,” said his wife, Martha.

Ouray resident Carl Dismant said his grandmother, who lived in the small town of Victor west of Colorado Springs, died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. He said he is trying to be cautious. He also said he hates to see people so scared that they stock up on things.

“I just think we need to use common sense,” he said.