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The normally highly collaborative Chaffee County COVID-19 Roundtable of the county and municipal leaders has been meeting nearly daily for the past seven weeks. That spirit of collaboration was strained on Wednesday, as law enforcement questioned enforcing the social distancing and mask requirements contained in both the Colorado state and Chaffee County public health orders.

With tourists already streaming into the county, (although it isn’t yet officially open) the situation is urgent to clarify where this county stands on social distancing and masks.

His and hers masks. Photo by Katie Terry

“We have to plant the right expectation for them to come here,” said the Chair of the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners Greg Felt, who went on to point out that turning mask-wearing into a social norm might gain broader acceptance. Only last week Felt wrote a Guest Opinion in which he laid out the county’s four-part reopening requirements.

“If we don’t have a strong requirement, then what other weapons do we have? This is a county-wide issue,” said Chaffee Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Director Wendell Pryor.

The normally cheerful and resourceful Chaffee County Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom, who last Friday filed a variance request with the state to speed up the opening within the county of restaurants, campgrounds, and RV parks, (hotels, motels, were considered critical businesses during the state stay at home order, so never fully shut down) was clear. Not only is the variance request based on our record of successfully handling incidents of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, but it is also predicated upon the county continuing to reinforce social distancing and masks.

“With ‘Stay-at-Home’, we were able to stabilize our virus environment in the county … masks are required in our public health order… law enforcement said they don’t have the capacity — or will – to enforce this,” said Carlstrom. “But social distancing and mask-wearing are what we’ve got right now. That’s it until we’ve got a vaccine. We are a county that prioritizes health and wellness and we take great pride in all the outdoor and healthy lifestyle here – if we can’t support requiring masks in public, then we have fallen short on protecting our community.”

The group’s opinions ranged across a spectrum of concern; from making masks “our social norm”, to enforcing it with a strongly educational messaging about the importance of masks, including outright enforcement. The leaders’ noticeable squeamishness on the topic may be due to the fact that the wearing of masks has been politicized, from the national level. (Where the president and vice president have announced they won’t wear them, nor has the White House until two staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Now staff in the West Wing are wearing masks), all the way down to the local level. Some right-wing militia groups appear to have made masks a symbol fo their resistance to government authority.

But the virus doesn’t have a political component, nor does it discriminate in who it infects. While the official order and the county commissioners have supported both social distancing and masks as our only weapons against a proven deadly virus for which there is no vaccine, law enforcement in the county has pushed back.

Courtesy photo; Keith Baker in his mask.

“Last week we had this discussion on the masks and went on for 30-40 minutes,” said Salida Police Chief Russ Johnson. “The order states they are required. Sheriff Spezze and I are on the same page, nor do we have the time to enforce the masks … our order says one thing, and in reality, this isn’t practical.”

Carlstrom responded saying, “I do appreciate this different perspective. But to get through this we all need to be on the same team … if that’s what you think, then I need that language on why your believe we would now be backing away [from that order]? Public health guidelines are clear; masks are one of the few weapons we have right now. Give me the language … why would we not require masks?”

“We have to model the behavior we require,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “It’s — this is Chaffee County, where we wear a mask. We don’t have to be coercive  … this is a social expectation that here in Chaffee County we care about each other and you, and wearing a mask is a small price to pay. Over time people will become accustomed to it.”

While there was pushback from law enforcement agencies, it was clear that the Chaffee Economic Development Corp understood the risk if enforcement were to fade.

“We need to get serious about enforcing [wearing] masks and how we’re going to do it,” said Carlin Walsh, CEO of Elevation Brewing and EDC board member. “If we are opening [lodging] at 25 percent on Monday – we will have a lot of folks [showing up] not wearing masks – we need some direction on how to manage this.”

Having waited for a couple of weeks while the group has done what can only be described as “tiptoeing” around the issue, the City of Salida gave up waiting on united county messaging. Together with the Salida Chamber it plans to roll out its own mask messaging campaign in the next few days.

Salida Mayor P.T. Wood sports his mask outside his distillery on First St. in Salida.

“I’ve been saying this for a week and it’s been ignored,” said Salida Mayor P.T. Wood. “The city and the chamber have gone out and done our own thing. We’re happy to share that with everybody…but we’re ahead on this and our messaging is already out there and should be at the forefront. Our message is ‘Hey we’re wearing a mask – this is why’.”

Talking with Wood on Thursday morning about the apparent refusal of the Salida Police Department to approach mask enforcement, Wood told Ark Valley Voice that the city would probably be looking at a strong educational component. “The real question is what does enforcement look like here? What will we do? We’re meeting shortly and we’ll look at coming up with some clear methodology. We’ve been waiting for it from the county, and with the absence of that we’re just going to go and figure this out ourselves.”

Carlstrom alerted the round table to the plight of Colorado Public Health agencies.

“While Chaffee Public Health has appreciated the support we have had here, during our [Colorado] Public Health call today, there were some significant concerns voiced by public health officials. It’s clear the same sentiments are not being felt by our fellow health departments,” said Carlstrom. “They are receiving death threats, their offices are being vandalized, their cars are being broken into … this is a very unsafe place for public health officials right now. Our departments have been working 24/7. There is depression, exhaustion, anxiety – just so you all know, this is the landscape we are working in.”

Felt responded, saying that any threats to the county’s public health officials will be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly.

“I respect everyone’s perspective on the round table,” said Carltrom. “We’re all looking at this from own own angle, but my job is to prioritize public health – we have so few strategies to fight this virus.”