Montezuma County drafts reopening plan

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The Montezuma County commissioners have put forth a draft plan for gradually reopening county businesses and have scheduled an in-person meeting on Thursday at 1 p.m. at the courthouse to discuss feedback on their plan. They said anyone who attends will be expected to observe social distancing.

At an electronic meeting on Tuesday, the board agreed to put out the draft plan, which is available for comment on the county website, www.montezumacounty.org. It was their second electronic meeting in two days, as they also met Monday to discuss the idea of reopening.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Jim Candelaria read a statement reflecting his personal views on the need to get away from the shutdown that has gripped the county and the entire country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Social distancing may become the new norm; however, we cannot live in fear,” Candelaria said.

He said the county’s residents are “very fortunate to live in a sparsely populated area. . .  it will take several months for any return to true normalcy; however, we have to start somewhere.”

Montezuma County has for several days remained at 13 known cases and two fatalities from the virus.

Candelaria said there is a need to reopen in order to protect people’s livelihoods. “We have seen that many of our fellow Americans have had their livelihoods stripped due to executive orders from the governor, and the fact that the WWE has been deemed essential in Florida raises questions for all of us,” he said.

“At what point is total economic ruin the better option as opposed to moving forward?” he added.

Candelaria said that Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez has an additional 60 beds if needed, there are several “Tier 3 and 4 structures” in the community, and Fort Lewis College in Durango has additional beds in case the reopening results in a new spike in coronavirus cases.

“The Southwest  region is prepared for a large-scale outbreak,” he said.

At the meeting on Monday, Dr. Kent Aikin, Southwest Memorial Hospital medicine specialist, made reference to principles for reopening listed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. One key element is the availability of rapid testing. The county does not have rapid-testing equipment yet, though it has been on order for several weeks, Aikin said.

Contact tracing for people identified as having the virus is also critical, he said.

The head of the county health department, Bobbi Lock, agreed, saying that widespread testing and rapid testing are essential. Increased testing will mean more positive results, which will mean more contact tracing has to be done, she said, and the health department will then need more personnel to do that.

“We will definitely have more positives,” she said, adding that health-care workers know there are positive cases out there but so far have not been able to identify them and trace their contacts.

Aikin said the hospital could probably handle 40 to 45 coronavirus patients of various severity if there were a surge in cases, “assuming a large portion of our staff doesn’t become ill.”

Lock said she understands the need for a balance between people’s health and the economy. She said once businesses begin reopening she doesn’t believe the health department would have the ability to enforce social-distancing and mask-wearing requirements in those establishments.

County attorney John Baxter agreed, saying that would probably require the help of law enforcement.

Cortez Mayor Karen asked how many tests would reasonably be needed for the county’s businesses to open up. Aikin said if the hospital is able to get the required machine and perhaps a thousand tests, “it would go a long way toward helping.” Then, all the residents of long-term-care facilities who are willing could be tested, as well as health-care workers and close contacts of positive cases.

Sheek said the county sounded like it was rushing things.

“Kent and Bobbi have made it clear we are not yet in a position to open up,” she said, adding, “I think we need to pull back just a little bit.”

Manuel Heart, chair of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, agreed.

“You guys are premature opening up the businesses,” he said. “I really think this is the calm before the storm.”

He said saving lives needs to be a priority.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is the largest employer in Montezuma County, he noted. So far it has no known cases. However, he said, cases in Arizona and in the Navajo Nation are increasing at a rapid rate.

“All that traffic is going to be coming this way to this city up here in Cortez and it’s going to impact the people there,” he said.

He added that the tribe has been able to get only 24 rapid testing kits. “You’re not going to get a thousand kits,” he said.

But Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said the county is only preparing a plan to reopen “when the governor allows us.”

The state of Colorado has said restrictions will begin to be eased starting April 26.

The debate over when states should allow businesses to reopen has devolved from a rational discussion of how to act wisely and safely, into a political slugfest. Protesters have demonstrated at a number of state capitols, including Denver, some of them saying that death is preferable to economic ruin and that people should just take their chances on getting the virus. Their opponents accuse them of being hypocrites and not valuing human life.

How any reopening will play out in areas such as Montezuma County is unknown. Many of the people who have money to spend in the county are retired and in the category considered high-risk, meaning they are 60 or older and/or have at least one health condition, such as hypertension or diabetes. Whether they will flock back into businesses any time soon even if they open their doors is uncertain.

Montezuma County’s offices are set to reopen on Monday, with precautions in place such as social distancing. Some offices, such as Planning and Zoning, will require people to call ahead and make appointments before they see anyone.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of coronavirus in Colorado rose to 10,447 on Tuesday, an increase of 341 cases, not as large an increase as the day before. The state reported 486 deaths, up by 37, which is a large hike, and 2,003 hospitalizations.

The Navajo Nation reported 1,206 cases with 48 deaths. The number of cases is actually less than it was reporting the day before, indicating some sort of error, and the deaths were up by 3.

New Mexico had seven new deaths, five of which happened to people in long-term care, for a total of 65 fatalities, according to KOB  4 news. The state has a total of 2,072 cases. A quarter of people who have been infected have recovered.

Arizona reported 5,251 cases, up by 187, a bigger increase than the day before, and 21 new deaths for a total of 208.

Utah had 3,296 cases, an increase of just 83, but it now has 32 deaths, an increase of 5 over the previous day.

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