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Being a Colorado citizen-legislator has always been a balancing act; between one’s regular job and legislative duties representing your district, including the 120 days that the Colorado General Assembly is in session at the state Capitol in Denver. The realities of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 have heightened this duality in new ways.

Donovan, who runs a ranch in Eagle County, says she has been traveling back and forth from the ranch to Denver dealing with committee work, even though the General Assembly is temporarily adjourned to comply with Governor Jared Polis’s stay-at-home orders. “It feels different in both places. The mountain communities are really affected, you know? Because more people in the small-town areas know someone who has passed away from it, it feels heavier here. In this county (Eagle) I think we have this perception that we are just trying to take care of our own,” said Donovan. “Up here, it isn’t just about the resources to care for our residents. {We say] to visitors from the Front Range, if you’re sick, going down altitude is safer and better, having your own doctor is better.”

She discussed the state’s basic goal of breaking the chain of transmission. “This request to stay at home should have the implication of staying in your community when you exercise, following safe practices … we’re asking people to make sacrifices. One of those sacrifices is not going to mountain communities unless it’s your primary residence.”

Donovan added that just because this is common sense, does not mean that people are following those guidelines. “I’ve heard people say ‘Well I’m going to go to the mountains because I’m more isolated up there’. I say, you’re not going up to a community with metro resources; you’re going to a community with less capacity to deal with large scale emergence of COVID-19. It really is disrespectful to use the mountains as a break from your stay at home environment.”

Asked about the legislative activity going on behind the scenes, Donovan said that a lot of the work behind the scenes is budget related, to try to find the resources that people need to get through this crisis. She said that with the massive economic impact “The work of writing actual law is still to come, because our budget is going to have to be significantly revamped – to the tune of millions of dollars. We don’t yet know the effect on legislation.”

Donovan said that what is really interesting is that Eagle. Pitkin, Summit and Gunnison counties were hit first and hard. “In the initial weeks — I think March 4 was our first identified case in Summit, and by March 10, we were in a state of emergency. All the initial flagging of this crisis – all the statements were coming from Senate District 5. It was surreal,  I’d send an email saying ‘Do you understand what is going on up here?’ and people would say – ‘I had no idea!’ We were really on the leading edge.”

Asked what the state might have learned from the coronavirus hitting the rural mountain areas first, Donovan was rueful.“If there is anything like a silver lining out of all this tragedy it is that we did a service to the rest of the state. Like you said, we’re smaller populations here – if the first time it had come to the forefront was in the millions of population on the Front Range, it might have grown exponentially before it was noticed. In our communities of 2,500 and 25,000, we could see the issue come up and we sounded the alarm.”

According to Donovan, there is another piece that needs illumination related to the rapid advance of the virus. “Some refer to the area [I-70 corridor] as company towns. Not quite. This area is so driven by a narrow economic driver, that when the ski lifts closed overnight – there wasn’t even a conversation of the effects on the other small businesses along the corridor.”

Donovan says that for the past 30 days, the focus in the state has been on health and safety, but close behind that is what the world will look like post COVID-19.

“First, it’s been on doing the right things to stay alive. But simultaneously there is the economic impact. That has been dramatic; worldwide, national and local. What will our towns look like on the other side of this?” said Donovan. “I’m focusing on the federal financial packages and how they are rolling out in the state. We’re trying to identifying the gaps in that aid – the scale of these impact from the healthcare side to the micro side and businesses. Frankly, this is too big for local or state governments on their own to try to figure out. So I put in a request [to the legislature] for an interim committee to study this right away and in an ongoing way working with the governor going forward.”

“It’s going to take every one of us making noise to get what we need,” concluded Donovan. “We’re going to have to yell and scream – a role I happily do is to be the loud voice for mountain communities of Colorado. We will have to do that over the coming months and years to make sure the focus isn’t just on the Front Range.”

Featured photo: Sen. Kerry Donovan speaks before the signing of SB19-107 in Salida in 2019. She spent five years moving the broadband infrastructure bill toward passage that was signed into law that day, while to her left, Governor Jared Polis listens. Photo by Jan Wondra.