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The Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) held their second COVID-19 leadership roundtable meeting of this week July 1 via Zoom. As planned, the meeting focused on an early look at plans for both the Salida and Buena Vista School Districts for reopening, as well as an update by Chaffee County Director of Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom on the Governor’s next phase of reopening called “Protect Your Neighbors.”

Image courtesy Chaffee County Public Health

Board Chair Greg Felt noted that at least 70 such sessions have been conducted since the COVID-19 roundtable convened in mid-March. While Wednesday’s session included the normal reports from key departments and municipal and business leaders, noticeably absent was the public input in an online chat that came forward during the June 29 meeting.

Felt said that these meetings have brought diverse stakeholders together, providing coordination and cooperation not always seen among county leadership groups.

Carlstrom provided highlights of Governor Polis’ June 30 news conference and provided some insight into the latest “Protect Our Neighbors” orders, referencing the name given to Colorado’s next stage of reopening. While details are still forthcoming, she made it clear that for Chaffee County to even consider applying for the latitudes possible under this order (50 percent capacity, groups over 500 people and more authority for local health departments). Carlstrom said the bar had been raised much higher, given the coronavirus surges going on in neighboring states.

Image courtesy City of Salida

Specific metrics must be achieved, guided by data and science and a much larger circle of signoffs will be needed – including law enforcement. Carlstrom advised that, before proceeding, Chaffee County wait until training on a new certification process is completed and that we see the impacts of the July 4th expected surge in visitors. She also noted that new “planning grants” of up to $50,000 may be available for county engagement and communications efforts.

Felt added that grants of $150,000 might be obtained to support infrastructure improvements that address COVID-19 needs. Commissioner Rusty Granzella said he hoped that planning grants might be used to help the schools and safety at schools.

“We must be 110 percent ready before considering moving to ‘Protect Our Neighbors.’” said Carlstrom. “We need to build a stronger public health system first.” That reference includes adding better testing capacity and a stronger contact tracing capability.

Carlstrom added that several people (mostly visitors) were tested at HRRMC on June 30 for COVID-19 and that results should be available by Friday, July 3. “Our local distancing forecast is 56 percent; Colorado overall [percentage] is much less than the target of 65 percent,” she added.

The distancing percentage represents the people in the county (residents and visitors) practicing social distancing at the state’s recommended guideline of staying at least six feet or further apart. The lower the percentage – the closer people are and the larger the gatherings tend to be – which makes community spread of COVID-19 more likely. The higher the percentage, the less likely the area is to experience community spread.

Buena Vista School District Sign (Photo by Taylor Sumners)

Lisa Yates, BV Superintendent of Schools, and David Blackburn Superintendent of Salida Schools presented overviews of how both school districts might manage the reopening of the schools. Both showed sample documents guided by the CDC and others as to four levels of exposure and how the schools might react to each.

Yates noted that the schools are living outside of the Governor’s programs like “Protect our Neighbor” because of the size of schools, but their reopening is absolutely necessary to the communities they serve. She said, “Schools differ from general population; they are essential so to speak.”

Superintendent Blackburn suggested that the community, businesses, and parents need to anticipate shutdowns of multiple days to provide time to react, remediate, and re-plan if an outbreak occurs. He asked that the business community work holistically with the schools and families to coordinate and reduce the impacts of a shutdown on both children and their working parents. He reiterated that facemasks and distancing are the best we have to reduce the number of schools “sick days” but that it is a matter of “when” an outbreak happens, and not “if”.

Lisa Yates added that shutdowns of one to three days at a time are likely. Blackburn then displayed earlier results of a survey showing the majority of parents wanted in-person classes. He added that this was also key to students’ mental health.

Salida Middle School Groove Battalion pumps up the crowd at 2020 Asia Fest Dragon Parade
Merrell Bergin photo

The issue for Blackburn is that while children are generally less at risk that is only part of the equation – teachers and support personnel are critical for schools to open and remain open. If one or more of them get sick, or if children become vectors of transmission to their families, then the school scenarios might change.

“The design problem is not how to stay healthy– rather how will we get sick and not overwhelm medical capacity? We need everyone involved,” said Blackburn.

Yates said she had been in contact with area doctors who can help with testing for the other typical childhood illnesses – flu and strep but that they need funds to purchase test materials and make testing easy, free and accessible to all who need it.

Blackburn expressed concern about how to reach families whose home or parents’ risk level precluded their children from attending. Another worry for schools; the financial impact of lower enrollment on the schools.

Both superintendents reminded county leaders that the impact of school closures affects the entire community. “What will businesses do when we call a ‘snow/sick day’? What will they do if we have to go to the cohort level (split sessions or alternating days per week)?” asked Blackburn.

He added that this is not just one day of downtime; the length of the virus may be 14 days plus for quarantine plus illness time. “How can families and employers work together to deal with that?” said Blackburn. He added that they will learn from BV Schools – and BV will learn from Salida Schools – about the best ways to handle each need.

Felt asked how businesses and the community might integrate their approach and treat families as a unit. He suggested color-coding families in each cohort to help bring the business community into that picture so they can easily follow suit and adapt to what workers might be available on a given day. He asked that as with the “Stay Safe, Stay Open” message that businesses are being asked to follow if something like that could be adopted for schools. “Maybe it would help people universally embrace the message (of compliance) since people ‘get it’ with kids”.

Executive Director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation Wendell Pryor, said he had reached out to “the Big Three”; Mt. Princeton, the Surf Hotel/South Main, and the Salida SteamPlant. He said none of the three were keen on widening group sizes. Pryor cited Jed Selby of BV saying, “we don’t want to poke the bear.”

Pryor added that Andreas Carlstrom and Chaffee County were given a shout out at the Governor’s press conference for their efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic to date.

As the meeting continued, Kurt Jones, Chaffee County Extension Agent proved a detailed update on plans for the Chaffee County Fair.

Contrary to other media reports, the 2020 Fair is NOT totally canceled. Rather, they have worked on extensive plans to stream all events online, offer an online livestock auction as well as an in-person event on the big August 1st day at the fairgrounds. More details will be forthcoming but Public Health and Colorado State University have approved the detailed plans and they are moving ahead.

As department heads provided their updates, little had changed from the June 30 meeting. When it was Commissioner Keith Baker’s turn, he provided considerable contrast to the “wait and see” feelings of others. Baker said his email box was full of messages from full-time residents about visitors who are coming from known hot spots and not wearing masks. “We are walking a knife-edge. They are bringing the virus. It would be a damn shame to have a sudden outbreak and have it come back with a vengeance.” He urged that “we need to do it right and not do it over”. He asked the group “what kind of enforcement can we bring [to this] and not depend on restaurants to be the ones [to enforce]?”

The next roundtable call/public virtual meeting is now set for Wed. July 8 – unless anything arises sooner. By then the schools will have had more internal meetings and both school districts expect that details of how they plan to reopen will start to roll out by late next week.