New public health orders that place the East End of San Miguel County at Level Orange Extreme drew criticism from members of the public at Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) meeting. The commissioners, sitting as the county’s board of public health, heard concerns from representatives from the lodging and restaurant industries, some of whom chafed at what they considered unfair and sudden restrictions.
The newly minted Orange Extreme level is the last level before a move to the more restrictive Level Red. The county’s high incidence of positive cases precipitated the latest upgrade and calls for bar and restaurant service to cease at 9 p.m., as well as reducing lodging capacity to 50 percent (down from 60 percent) with no more than one household in any rental unit.
Larry Mallard, CEO of Alpine Lodging, said that while he understood the need to issue tighter public health restrictions, in light of the upcoming Presidents' Day long weekend, he implored the board to consider giving the lodging community more time to get into compliance.
“I see the need to do this and I trust if the numbers go down, you will respond,” Mallard said. “Allow lodgers to become compliant in five days. Please give us until Monday to get in compliance with the 50 percent daily cap. We’re going to harm some lodgers.”
Others in the lodging business said that canceling reservations this close to the holiday weekend was problematic, as many guests are already en route to Telluride and also have other amenities such as rental skis, cars and ancillary services booked. Some guests, when apprised of the new restrictions, still come to Telluride but book elsewhere.
Restaurant owners questioned the earlier bar time of 9 p.m., which is down from 10 p.m. Ross Martin, owner of Littlehouse and The National lamented the perils of doing business during a pandemic with its attendant public health orders.
“You’re hitting us in the kneecap here,” Martin said. He suggested a closing time of 9:30 p.m. as a compromise.
Not only did the commissioners take heat for the new public health order (which went into effect Wednesday at 10 p.m.), but for BOCC chair Lance Waring’s comment implying public comment would not sway the board on changing its stance about moving the dial to Orange Extreme.
Mountain Village Mayor, Laila Benitez took Waring to task, accusing the board of poor communication and saying that town had a “major issue” with the new lodging restrictions.
“We’re messing with people’s lives without enough notice,” she said. “It’s been a bit much.”
Waring, who also serves on the county’s lodging oversight committee, said the 50 percent cap was arrived as a compromise with members of that group.
“We chose a middle ground,” Waring said. “It’s awkward and it’s difficult, I know … this was not something that was sprung on the lodging committee.”
Commissioner Hilary Cooper defended the latest public health orders and reminded attendees that “we are in a state of emergency” and that outbreaks in the accommodations and food service sectors registered in “higher categories,” according to state data.
“It’s extremely difficult to maintain this state of emergency,” Cooper said. “We have to take these actions to prevent a collapse of our public health. We’re using the best tools we have to contain this virus and we need your help.”
Other county officials said it is all about the metrics being used that determines where public health orders are set.
“If the numbers don’t go down, the state could put us in the red,” said county attorney Amy Markwell.
Commissioner Kris Holstrom defended the county’s communications with its partners — the surrounding municipalities and the leaders of various economic drivers such as retail, the medical community, Telluride Ski Resort, food and beverage and accommodations, as well as recreational and arts-based interests, among others. She also brought up that there’s a faction of county residents who do not think restrictions are tight enough.
“We hear from people begging us, ‘please shut down,’” Holstrom said. “That would be the easy thing to do and perhaps we should have done that.”
County manger manager Mike Bordogna said that county noticing of all meetings is by the book.
“This is not a knee jerk reaction,” Bordogna said. “This is not taken lightly. The board is acting in the best interests of the public.”
Following public feedback, the commissioners said they were open to further consideration of a revised bar time and for a grace period in which lodgers could come into compliance, but unanimously backed public health director Grace Franklin.
“It behooves us to move forward as planned,” Franklin said.
“I support this decision,” Holstrom concurred. “There’s solid science, solid reasoning, solid info.”
County health officials continue to stress the importance of limiting gatherings, particularly indoors, wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing, staying home if experiencing any symptoms and getting tested. As of Tuesday, there were 15 new cases making the county total 771 with 54 active cases. Cases are predominantly in the East End of the county. Orange Extreme applies to those living within the R-1 school district. The remainder of the county will stay at Level Orange.
“COVID spread is rampant in mountain towns throughout Colorado,” Franklin said in a statement. “While our east end rates are seeing a slow in transmission, the numbers remain very concerning and require action. All residents are encouraged to continue tightening their behaviors in the coming weeks to ensure a sustained decline.”
Numbers reveal that people in the 20-29 age group have had the most cases, followed by those ages 40-49. Officials are bracing themselves for expected surges following Super Bowl Sunday and President’s Day weekend.
For complete information visit the COVID-19 dashboard for metrics, vaccine information, testing sites, dates and locations and current restrictions at sanmiguelcountyco.gov.