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‘Frustration Palpable’ As Mountain Counties Batten Down The Hatches

Courtesy of Christine Crouse
Clear Creek County
Clear Creek county, Colo., has closed county roads to non-residents, with up to $5,000 in fines and jail time for violators.

There was the hiker who broke his leg, then refused to put on a mask before the alpine rescue team helped him down the mountain. There were the snowboarders and skiers packing together into cars to drive up to a closed ski area. Or the people howling at the full moon, over open flames.

Bruce Snelling, undersheriff with Clear Creek County in Colorado, said all of these incidents have happened in recent weeks. And until Saturday, there wasn’t too much he could do about it. But now, the county’s public health order lays out some harsh penalties for non-residents using county roads to get to the backcountry: a fine of up to $5,000 or up to 18 months in the county jail.  

“I think people are finally getting the message,” said Snelling, who added that the county hasn’t yet used those options, though it did issue about 25 warning notices over the past few days to hikers, who primarily hailed from the Denver area. 

It’s just one example of previously invisible borders materializing during this pandemic. A number of reservations have set up roadblocks and checkpoints. People driving into the state of Utah are being asked to fill out an online form declaring their health status. And a group of 13 counties in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, including Clear Creek, wrote a letter this month to the governor saying they’re “dismayed to see droves of out-of-town residents” continuing to visit. The counties asked for a ban on travel to mountainous areas for recreation, and for that ban to be enforced by state law enforcement or the National Guard. 

“The frustration has been palpable for a lot of these mountain counties. They’ve just had it,” said Eric Bergman with the Mountain Division of Colorado Counties, Inc., the group that wrote the letter. “What if you get in an accident there? Then you’re taking up a hospital bed.”

Hospital beds that are in short supply. According to data from Kaiser Health News, more than 60% of counties in the Mountain West have no ICU beds. 

“We have no hospitals here,” said Snelling. “The majority of our population is elderly. We’re trying to protect them, we have limited resources here,” he said, noting that much of their first responders are volunteers.

About 300 miles southwest, San Juan County instructed visitors “to drive past the communities of Cascade Village and Silverton and not stop.” The county’s public health order invokes the same potential punishment as in Clear Creek. (In Colorado, violating a public health order is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor, hence the high fine and jail time; other states have less severe penalties). “Please don't become the example that demonstrates how serious we are,” the San Juan County sheriff’s office wrote on an FAQ page.

The county has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, and county spokesperson DeAnne Gallegos said they’re desperately trying to keep it that way.

“We have no doctor and no nurse,” said Gallegos, who lives in the town of Silverton. “We’re nestled at 9,000 elevation feet between two mountain passes. We have one road in and one road out. Our search and rescue [team] are the same people who volunteer for the ambulance service. We can barely take care of ourselves on a good day.”  

And, Gallegos added, the “pit of people” in the town’s cemetery is a reminder of the toll a virus can take. Silverton lost 10% of its population to the 1918 flu, and many of its victims ended up in a mass grave. 

The county is asking that people coming to their second homes quarantine for two weeks. Gunnison County, home to ski resorts like Crested Butte, has gone further. Back in 1918, it declared a “quarantine against the world.” Now, it’s doing it again

“We have said ‘no visitors allowed,’” said Andrew Sandstrom, a spokesperson with Gunnison County Incident Command. To the dismay of certain Texans, its definition of “visitors” includes people who own second homes in the county. 

“Gunnison is a poor choice to weather this storm given the huge impact higher elevations have on this respiratory illness,” the county wrote on its website, “Especially for individuals who are currently living at a lower altitude.”

“We shut down basically in the middle of March – gave up our second week of spring break skiers to address it,” Sandstrom said.

Sandstrom said the move bought the county much-needed prep time, allowing them to turn the fairgrounds into a surge treatment facility, and saw vents in the roof of the 24-bed hospital to create negative pressure rooms, to keep contaminated air from spreading in the building.

“Those strict orders early on allowed us to slow the spread and bought us time to build up some of that infrastructure,” Sandstrom said. “So far the impacts on our hospital have been manageable.”

Still, in one 10-day stretch in March, nine people were put on ventilators, an “unheard-of volume of respiratory-failure patients in a small rural town like ours.”

Since there’s no intensive care unit in the area, patients had to be flown to Denver.

That’s an option rural counties across the country might not be able to rely on in coming weeks, according to Teryn Zmuda with the National Association of Counties.

“One challenge that is coming down the pipeline is smaller counties with less resources typically look to their urban core for additional healthcare support when they need it,” Zmuda said. “And right now our urban cores are being hit so hard that it’s going to be challenging for them to provide those resources to our rural areas.”

Indeed, “As this pandemic begins to hit our larger cities, transporting the critical patient[s] to city ICUs will become less likely,” read a letter April 10 from Gunnison Incident Command.

“We love our visitors,” said Bruce Snelling in Clear Creek. “We want them to return and use our recreational areas once this is over.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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