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Chaffee County has submitted a formal variance request to the state of Colorado, asking for permission to open some industry categories earlier than the timetable it established based upon the state’s “Safer at Home” stage. The variance requests including opening restaurants, motels and hotels, RV parks, and campgrounds (now set for May 16 and June 1). The variance does not suggest percentages of occupancy. Rather it is based upon those establishments meeting a set of public safety operational criteria to allow for gradual reopening. It also asked to open the county’s outdoor hot springs.

Mountain Motel, Salida. (Courtesy photo)

In a special meeting held Friday morning, May 8, Commissioners approved the draft language, which was routed to all three municipalities, having participated in variance discussions, for their signatures. The variance request was submitted to the state later that day by Chaffee County Director of Public Health Andrea Carlstrom. There is no known timeline for the state’s responses, but the county hopes to hear back later this week.

The move follows spirited meetings with the Chaffee County restaurant industry and the lodging community, in which the county’s small businesses outlined their urgent need to reopen and their ability to do so safely. The lodging industry, in particular, expressing strong feelings about opening before the critical Memorial Day weekend.

Surf Hotel, Buena Vista. CO. (Image courtesy of Trip Advisor)

“I’ve picked up on some things – what we’ve been learning over the past seven weeks, like Jed’s comments [Jed Selby, Surf Hotel ] that you social distance by design,” said BoCC Chair Greg Felt. “Tom’s comment [Tom Warren, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort] about being in the cleaning and sanitizing biz – I have no reason to doubt this. We have to look at the entirety of this to focus on how we need to proceed.”

The Chaffee County Board of County Commissioners, together with the COVID-19 Roundtable, directed Chaffee County Director of Public Health Andrea Carlstrom to prepare the variance application.

The Mt. Princeton Upper pool area now includes a new infinity pool. (Photo by Jan Wondra)

Carlstrom pointed out that the variance request is based upon the involvement of industry subject matter experts willing to participate in establishing industry-specific process checklists for reopening. “I want to be clear. It’s not that we don’t feel these industries can’t operate safely, it’s just in light of a pandemic, knowing that tourists are coming, how do we cope in a coordinated way, and protect our community?”

“We’ve added a question on the lodging industry certification form – to tailor a checklist so that it is meaningful,” added Carlstrom. “It’s more a review of the requirements. We’re asking them, ‘do you certify you’ve read, can adhere to these requirements’?  I wanted this meeting first [before we create that checklist].”

While 85 lodging industry representatives participated in an input meeting on Wednesday, May 6, short term rentals (STR) such as VRBOs and Airbnbs, were excluded from the variance request, based upon the fact that the state itself has not yet set reopening criteria for this lodging subset. There were significant objections lodged by STR owners.

“I don’t feel STRs are being granted the hearing that they ought to receive – short term rentals pose much the least risk than hotels and motels,” said Dan Jones. “We have none of the issues the hotels and motels have; there is very little interaction …we pose the least risk.”

The state has been silent on hot springs facilities, although Carlstrom pointed out that Pagosa Springs has already announced reopening, based upon what authority is not known. Chaffee’s variance also asks to reopen its outside hot springs, while inside hot springs, including the Salida Aquatic Center, would remain closed.

Carlstrom pointed out that the county’s decision to request a variance is based upon a careful assessment of the county’s public health capability. Current COVID-19 cases have stabilized, the curve is flattened, and the county has testing and contact tracing in place. The county has had one case (May 5) since April 11.

“We must assure that we have the health care capacity to handle whatever occurs. Yes, we have a fairly robust system in place for moderating the COVID situation. We communicate daily with HRRMC for capacity and/or positive tests, and we have a system in place to track anyone they came in contact with 48 hours before becoming symptomatic. The situation in our long term care facility outbreak has plateaued,” said Carlstrom. “But we only have a 25-bed facility here in the county. If we do have to activate an alternate care facility, that is a bad day in this county. Today, we feel confident we have the capacity to handle the COVID landscape we are currently faced with. That could definitely change if we have an outbreak.”

Carlstrom stressed that social distancing rules continue to apply. “Offices at no more than 50 percent capacity, no more than 10 people in public gatherings, and masks are required.” She added that the wearing of a mask is a requirement of the state’s public health order, as well as the county’s public health order.

There were some in the audience that pushed back on masks, among them the Sheriff’s Department and Salida Police. Salida Police Chief Russ Johnson said: “We don’t have the staff to enforce the mask rule.”

The normally calm and quiet Carlstrom pushed back, saying: “Well, we don’t have the public health department staff to handle a pandemic surge.”

She reinforced that with no vaccine for this highly contagious disease, social distancing and masks are the few tools public health has against a surge in COVID-19 cases as the county opens up.

The topic of masks was placed as an agenda item for the 4 p.m. Monday COVID-19 Roundtable meeting (This meeting is open to the public…the Zoom meeting entry is on the county’s website

“The worst thing we could do is get out there ahead of ourselves, and then cases spike, and we have to attempt a shut down in July and August,” said Felt. “We want to make it through the summer with resources intact – then be able to make it through the winter ahead.”