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In a Monday special meeting of the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners, convened as the Chaffee Board of Health, they lifted county outdoor event maximum capacity to 5,000 and indoor event capacity to 75 percent. Until now, per the Chaffee Public Health Order, the maximum outdoor event capacity has been 2,000, and indoor event capacity has been 65 percent. Restaurants can already operate at 100 percent capacity.

The decision was not unanimous. The vote was two to one, with Commissioners Keith Baker and Rusty Granzella voting for the change, and Chaffee County Chair Greg felt voting against raising capacity. The rare split vote demonstrates how stressful the past 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic has been, and the many concerns involved in what has been a cautious reopening of the county.

The Meadows parcel spends most of its time as an agricultural facility. Greg Wright photo.

That the special meeting was called at all had to do with a special event permit application presented during the June 1 regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC). The permit application for the Meet Me at the Creek event proposed for late Sept. at The Meadows, on the edge of Buena Vista was for a capacity of 5,000, far above the Chaffee Public Health Order.

Felt noted that when the county got that application, “There was concern about spending energy on the details of an application when it isn’t known what the capacity will be for a given event, a given venue, at a given point of time.” He added that there were plenty of to-be-determined elements to that application, but little in the way of addressing county COVID concerns or plans to keep the public safe.

Asked for the stance from Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) on events of this sort, Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom said that CCPH had three concerns for summer outdoor events coming out of the pandemic.

“First, we respect the subject matter experts and we meet three to five times a week with the state CDPHE so we know where they are with sectors and restrictions. That includes outdoor events,” said Carlstrom. “Second, Chaffee has had quite the challenging couple of years – wildfires, lives lost, missing people, increased law enforcement issues. We want to respect our responders … our local assets have to be available for the residents here. Third, we look at activities that unite us, bring us together — that are part of the fabric of our culture. We’re asking event planners – is this event bringing us together as a county? or is it attracting people from outside the county, but may not have significant value to residents?”

She added, “That said we’d adjust and be flexible — while many counties are planning to move on with public health orders, some counties have just decided to follow what’s left of the state public health order and having larger scale events. We have the opportunity here in this county to stay the course.”

One overriding fact: the state has abandoned capacity limits on events as it moves out from under strict COVID pandemic mode. “But counties have considerations such as the capacity of the building (fire occupancy). There is the density of people that we have discussed for the past 15 months as a way to look at events – what matters is adequate space,” said Felt. “A critical element is vaccinations … there was an event reported to me, one of the main performers for Seven Peaks  did an event in New York state for vaccinated people only – there are different ways to skin this, rather than a simple cap on the numbers.”

“We recognize there are two sides of this – essential functions that are our jobs and people wanting to get moving with their plans and options for entertainment,” said EMS Director Josh Hadley. “The fatigue component of it is my concern. [the staff] are spent, burnt out. They have been so engaged with so many other components of service delivery – with all these other stressors of managing the pandemic … we need to allow that healing time for the staff.”

He added, “If the county chooses to go forward with these events, we are going to have to look at some other options to staff these events. Our community is in full swing, you can’t get through town, or find a place to eat in the middle of the week. The data is showing transmission is down – but to staff these [much larger] events … we have no idea what staffing will be required … we’re optimistic, but at the same time intentionally adding a ton to their plates is a concern.”

“It seems like there’s a spectrum of support that you provide to events – depending on their size,” said Felt.”Some of these larger events, like multi-day events at The Meadows….there seems to be a medical tent, an assessment function, an extraction function, monitoring on site, transport to HRRMC… how could we distribute that load?”

Hadley responded that with a history with some of the larger events like the Seven Peaks Music Festival, there is an opportunity to spread some of that load to some of the other responders in the community.  “For example, we’d manage extraction and transport. We’ve been staffed with a paramedic and EMT [for each call at an event] but maybe we don’t need the paramedic on every transport.” He added that “the agencies across our region are having similar challenges and still aren’t filling the spots. It speaks to the fatigue we’re all dealing with.”

Tanya Wait, Chaffee County Public Health nurse stands ready to deliver COVID-19 vaccinations in the brand new health trailer on May 27 in Salida’s Riverside Park. Merrell Bergin photo

Baker raised the issue of responsibility for the public health plans at events, stressing that it is not the job of the CCPH to provide those plans to event planners and that applications coming in should provide their plans. In fact, he pointed out that the COVID event planning kit developed by CCPH for event planners is intended to equip them to prepare and be responsible for their own plans.

“There are still unknowns,” said Carlstrom. “We are struggling to get to herd immunity. Hopefully, we’ll see younger and younger kids vaccinated. We still have holdouts in our society. We need to continue to stay the course and offer guardrails for those who aren’t vaccinated – like it or not – our job is to protect them. We are STILL in a global pandemic and lives are being lost … so many unknowns leading into an autumn that might potentially be very dynamic.”

The group touched on values — what kind of events the community really should pursue. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which events are part of our heritage? Which benefit county residents instead of outsiders and visitors to the community?

“I think there’s been some discussion about what this means for locals, and how to do things that are worth it … I feel like this meeting is actually about COVID, safety issues mingled with concepts like do we want to spend the energy, do we want to make room for this in our community?” said Jed Selby, who owns The Meadows event area.”While we were all at home, things got more clear. I think by Sept. it’s going to be safe. A music festival begins to bridge the gap, a field of all ages, beliefs, everyone dancing together … you can’t underestimate the power of music to bring people together. You’ve done a great job with the vaccine rollout here – we’re excited to get together and build community.”

For its part, the BoCC stressed that what they want is a safe and successful outdoor season … it comes down to the assumed risk for these events that goes with personal responsibility.