The county’s government officials can agree on at least one thing, and that is, when it comes to governing during a pandemic, it was everyone’s first rodeo. And though certain protocols are in place to aid governments in the event of an event as calamitous as the runaway virus that shuttered the ski area and sent residents into lockdown in March, representatives from the Towns of Norwood, Ophir, Mountain Village and Telluride, as well as elected officials and staff from San Miguel County that met Thursday afternoon via Zoom agreed that, overall, government response was guided by service to and protection of county residents.
“We’ve all done our absolute best to serve our constituents,” said county manager, Mike Bodogna.
The two-hour review was facilitated by Chris Romer, CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, a nonprofit regional community development organization, founded in 1964. In his introduction, Bordogna said that having the meeting facilitated would ensure, “all the voices can be heard and how we can learn from them.”
The discussion’s framework was specific to the coordinated public health response, and stoked somewhat by the urgency of seeing federal funding evaporate once 2021 arrives. Deeper collaborations would be paramount, “to use our limited response funds even more efficiently,” the agenda stated. Collaborating while running the various governments independently was another over-arching theme of the special intergovernmental meeting.
“Collaboration is the best way to use funding and communication to work together in a more effective way,” Romer said.
The group dove into the first of the four main themes agendized: public health capacity, communications, staffing and enforcement and education.
County public health director, Grace Franklin recapped coronavirus statistics gathered from March through August, covering testing for the virus, contact tracing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and how best to address any unmet needs.
County emergency manager Henry Mitchell said he’d like to see a more robust stockpile of PPE.
“Currently we have 28 days,” he said. “I’d like to see 45 days.”
Norwood Mayor Pro Tem, Candy Meehan, said she’d like there to be a greater emphasis on all-around health, citing that the Norwood grocery store during lock down, was devoid of frozen “less healthy” food, while the produce aisle remained full.
“Help people take care of themselves,” she suggested. “Keep communities eating healthy.”
Telluride Town Council member, Adrienne Christy said she’d like to see “more people on the street,” sharing the community’s expectations when it came to compliance with public health orders such as social distancing and wearing face coverings.
In both cases, Romer said that positive reinforcement was a better tool than “government telling people what to do.”
The communication portion of the meeting spilled into most other discussions on the meeting agenda. And though the consensus was that communication from governments to their constituents was largely successful, there was room for improvement. Telluride Mayor DeLanie Young pointed to the county’s weekly Zoom calls, which began in mid-March, as a key component in getting town and county officials on the same page.
“But a challenge I see is not having a communications person from town (Telluride) government,” Young said.
Telluride has advertised for a public information officer, but had not filled the position as of press time Friday. Both the county and Mountain Village have positions in a communications capacity.
Mountain Village Mayor, Leila Benitez, said being able to pick up the phone and catch up with her counterparts in other governments “has been key for me.”
Romer posed a question for the group.
“Have you devised a way to reach your most vulnerable populations,” he asked. “They’re probably the ones least likely to be on an email or text list.”
Norwood’s Meehan said reaching residents of the West End community of Egnar with pertinent, COVID-related news and information was a challenge.
“They’re vulnerable, they’re aging and we need to connect with them,” she said, noting that, “it won’t always be through technology.”
The staffing portion of the meeting covered positions such as the ambassador program that is a collaboration between Telluride and the Telluride Tourism Board. Romer suggested continued community forums, which we cited as a positive means of education and communication, as well as encouraging industry groups to put forth peer leaders to help disseminate information, particularly in the service industries.
Enforcement and education rounded out the focused, two-hours slated for the meeting. Issues such as law enforcement understaffing — “It would surprise and scare you,” Bordogna said of current county law enforcement coverage on any given day. — and slow response times were two examples of areas to improve.
“We need a quicker response time when we have a problem,” said Telluride Mayor ProTem, Todd Brown.
And peer policing could be bolstered with some education. Greg Craig commented that a large, maskless gathering in the building in which he serves on the homeowner’s association, though alarming to residents, did not elicit a call. Passersby took photos and called the police, he said, who came and brought the group into compliance.
“We had residents threatened by the situation,” Craig said. “I think part of enforcement is informing residents how to respond.”
Telluride Town Council member Geneva Shaunette suggested an anonymous hotline could be established, anonymous because, she said, “This community doesn’t like tattling.”
Mayor Young agreed, adding that those pointing out large gatherings or other violations of public health orders are, “afraid of retaliation.”
Romer said the best way to message was “awareness on the front end and enforcement on the back end.”
County commissioner, Lance Waring, pointed out examples of how educating two different industries made great strides in compliance. For the lodging sector, he said that guests are hit three times with consistent messaging — upon booking, at check-in, and with printed material in their rooms.
And for those working in the construction field, one of the first economic sectors to be opened up following Stay at Home orders, Waring said a series of meetings took place with area contractors. In those meetings, they learned and passed on to employees that, “there are community-wide expectations.”
Romer encouraged the group, saying that most visitors are keen to fit in and abide by community norms.
“It’s the live like a local message … a huge majority of visitors will respect that,” he said.