Time to open up? Locals struggle to balance community health with the needs of small businesses in the age of COVID-19

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Stuart McLagan Porter was a vigorous 82-year-old living in Montezuma County, Colo., when he contracted COVID-19. He chose to fight the virus outside of the hospital so he wouldn’t be separated from his wife.

He died at his home in Yellow Jacket on April 6.

He became one of the county’s two fatalities from the novel coronavirus that has become a global pandemic, infecting well over 3.5 million people worldwide and killing more than a quarter-million.

At press time, Montezuma County had had 18 positive test results and 345 negatives. Eleven people were said to have recovered. How to view the county’s statistics is a matter that has spawned much discussion.

At a meeting April 29 between the county commissioners and local health officials, the director of the county health department, Bobbi Lock, said that two fatalities out of the county’s known cases of COVID-19 (then at 16) was a high number.

“But both those cases were very compromised people, they had underlying medical conditions,” commented Commissioner Keenan Ertel.

Information about the second fatality has not been made publicly available. But Cara Jo Rieb – one of Porter’s four children and one of two who live in Cortez – said in an message to the Four Corners Free Press that her father appeared to have years of good health ahead of him until the virus struck.

“My brother Danny and I were just talking this morning about all the plans dad had for the coming months,” she said. “He loved Spring time; not too hot, not too cold. He loved wildlife and his land. He had just hiked his canyon at Yellow Jacket a few days before he got really sick. He was very youthful, energetic and healthy for an 82-year-old.

“He had a garden, a nice yard and several ponds for wildlife and since they live off the grid, there are always many things that kept him busy. He had planned to help Dan with his cabin and to restore some logs at his house. He had irrigated for Mike Porter for several Summers. I went with him once and couldn’t believe how physically exhausting it was. He did it morning and night and planned to do it again this Summer.

“He and [his wife] Sharon had recently picked out a puppy from the shelter, so he obviously thought he had years left. He has a brother who is 92, a sister who is 90 and another brother who is 87. Longevity was on his side. I feel like we’ve been robbed of years with him.”

Edgy and angry

The virus that took Porter’s life is called SARS-CoV-2; the illness it produces is called COVID-19. The virus is one of seven in the coronavirus family that can infect humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Influenza, to which COVD-19 is often compared, is not a coronavirus.

While some victims of COVID-19 have very mild cases, and most infected people do recover, the disease can be extremely serious, producing weeks of fever, hallucinations, headaches, blood-clotting disorders, even damage to the lungs, kidneys and heart.

While medical researchers work frantically to find a highly effective vaccine and/or treatment, society is in limbo. It isn’t safe to be out among other people – SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious, more so than the flu – but humans are social animals and many are growing depressed, edgy, and angry at being restrained from normal activities.

There is also enormous concern about what will happen to businesses that are forced to remain closed much longer and people who are left without jobs.

Given the chance

On April 29, the commissioners were meeting to discuss reopening the county. Many local residents have voiced impatience with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s “safer at home” plan, which calls for gradually easing restrictions on business and recreational activities. Because Montezuma County has seen relatively few cases, it should be able to open up faster, the commissioners said, ultimately voting 3-0 to draft a letter asking the state health department for an exemption from the rules.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said they would like local restaurants and gyms – and all businesses – to be allowed to operate at 40 percent occupancy even while the rest of the state is keeping such establishments closed or restricting them to 10 or fewer customers.

The commissioners were seeking support from the local health-care community for the proposal, but health officials had some reservations.

Lock commented that restaurants are “one of the most contagious spots because people are socializing, sitting, talking, with masks off. Even if you socially distance you have a greater risk,” she said.

The commissioners said local businesses need to be given the chance to operate safely or they won’t survive. Health officials generally agreed that they should get that chance so long as they observe social distancing, have employees wear masks if they deal with the public, and don’t allow big crowds.

But an argument broke out between Suckla and Tony Sudduth, the CEO of Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, after Suckla stated that he believes wearing facial coverings and doing increased testing for the virus are useless measures.

Sudduth had said enforcement of safety rules would be key to reopening county businesses. He said he’d seen a post on Facebook in which a local business said it would not comply with facial-covering guidelines or other requirements no matter what.

Lock said the health department does what it can to enforce regulations, first following up on complaints, then reaching out to the district attorney and law enforcement if necessary. Fines and even jail time can be imposed on repeat offenders, she said.

She and Dr. Kent Aikin, the county health physician, said they don’t want to see anyone fined. Aikin said he hopes officials will lead by example. “We want people outside of Montezuma County to say, ‘Look how successful they’ve been keeping this thing under control’,” he said.

But Suckla disagreed with some safety guidelines. “Somebody needs to protect the people that don’t think you should wear a mask and I’m going to be that guy,” he said.

“I think the masks are absolutely ridiculous,” he continued, saying he had heard of people getting “rush” (he may have meant thrush, a fungal infection) from wearing a mask for 12 hours straight.

He also said he didn’t understand the need for more testing. “I go get tested and am negative, five minutes later somebody touches me and I got COVD-19 and I don’t know it, because I had such confidence because I had the negative test,” he said.

“There’s some counties that are looking the other way [in regard to violations],” Suckla continued, “and I think the masks are ridiculous.”

‘Into the weeds’

But Sudduth took issue with that position. “There is no way I am supporting moving anything forward if we have this type of attitude in this county,” he said. At that point Suckla, who has yelled at other people during commission meetings, began shouting at Sudduth, accusing him of making $350,000 a year, which Sudduth said he does not, then repeatedly demanding that Sudduth say how much he makes.

He said Sudduth, because he is not an elected official, doesn’t have the authority to go into a business and “harass the hell out of them” and accused Sudduth of trying “to destroy this community.”

Commissioner Jim Candelaria interrupted to say the discussion had gotten “into the weeds” and that although he does not like wearing facial coverings, having people do so may be necessary to allow businesses to reopen.

Sudduth said he doesn’t oppose opening up the county, but wants procedures in place that make it safe and sensible. He said protecting hospital staff is important. More than 10,000 health-care workers nationwide have been infected by the virus, according to published reports.

“We had a serious incident this week involving a COVID patient that could have exposed a lot of our staff,” Sudduth said, adding, “Don’t tell me I don’t care about this community.”

The commissioners ultimately decided to submit their proposal to the state health department and, if the state OKs their plan, to re-evaluate how things are working three weeks after the rules are relaxed.

Administrator Shak Powers said local businesses will be motivated to comply with safety guidelines if they understand that they can’t move to a next phase without behaving.

Ertel expressed optimism that warm weather will mean the virus will decline, just as the annual flu seems to disappear in the summer. However, experts say there is little evidence so far that warmer weather is why new cases seem to be declining in many places. They believe it’s more likely because of social distancing and wearing masks.

Alone in the ER

Montezuma County does seem to sit in a small pocket of the state where the virus is not prevalent. But conditions in surrounding areas aren’t similar.

San Juan County, New Mexico, located just south of Montezuma County and even warmer, had 736 positive cases and 57 deaths, the most of any county in New Mexico, as of May 2. Though Dolores County, Colo., had no known cases as of that date, several other counties near Montezuma had more, with Montrose at 105 cases and 11 deaths, and La Plata at 63 cases with no fatalities.

The Navajo Nation, to Montezuma’s south and southwest, had 2,373 confirmed cases and 73 deaths as of May 2.

For a brief time, when the pandemic began, it seemed that people were mostly united against a common foe. Now, the virus seems to have spawned improbable conspiracy theories and deepened political rifts.

A number of citizens have said that coronavirus is no more serious than the flu, or even if it is, that the more vulnerable individuals – the elderly and anyone with hypertension, diabetes, or other medical problems – may just have to die so that the economy can get going again.

Nancy Schaufele, a Four Corners Free Press columnist who lived in Montezuma County until recently and now resides in Moab, voiced a different opinion in a Facebook post on May 3.

“This week I had a post-surgical hiccup and had to visit our local ER again,” she wrote. “The worst part was that my husband had to leave me at the emergency room door unable to come in, unable to sit with me waiting for hours for a scan, unable to talk to the doctors. He was sick with worry.”

Things turned out fine for her and she was able to return home that night, she said. But her experience was eye-opening.

“I had a chance to speak with the healthcare workers (doc’s, nurses, lab techs, etc.) and they all said the same thing,” Schaufele said. “Covid19 is scary as hell and they are terrified of what might happen to our community and our country.”

Moab’s hospital has 17 beds and one portable ventilator, she said.

“This weekend Moab opened back up to tourists and I heard the fear in our health professionals worrying about caring for a community which could explode with the virus.”

Schaufele said she recently had a long conversation with a neighbor who is an ER nurse in Park City, a few hours from Moab.

“She talked about the explosion of the virus there. She talked with deep sadness about the many patients she has intubated within the past month and how many have died. She choked up when she spoke of spouses turned away from the ER as they admitted their husbands, wives and partners. Some had been married for decades and have never been separated. It was terrifying for them.

“She told me about admitting a 21 year old in severe respiratory distress as his parents sat in the car sobbing. She later had to go out and tell them he had died. Died from the virus.”

The nurse, who had been an Army nurse at one point, said nothing had prepared her for COVID-19. She begs people who are skeptical about the reality of the disease to have a conversation with a front-line worker.

Schaufele wrote, “It is mind-boggling to realize more lives have been lost to this virus in just a few short months than the Vietnam War and 9/11. We always came together as a country during crisis. Now we seem horribly divided. I simply do not understand it.”

Pay the fines?

After the April 29 meeting, Suckla posted on Facebook: “We have got to get rid of CEO of Southwest Memorial hospital He He [sic] doesn’t care about us”. He later posted: “I suggest that Montezuma county pays all fines For the businesses that are [sic] Health Department Fines you for not wearing a mask”.

But Ertel and Candelaria later posted a video in which they explained their support for reopening county businesses “in a safe and positive manner” that will protect the most vulnerable populations. They noted that nursing homes in the county are, so far, COVID-free.

“I think our community has done an excellent job in protecting themselves,” Ertel said, continuing that it is time to focus on improving economic health. He added that if the county is given the exemption by the state, “I hope that everyone in our community. . . will then show their respect for that being granted to us and abide by as many of those safety and cleanliness issues as they can.”

‘The hardest thing’

Porter, who died from the virus, graduated with a major in biology, Rieb wrote to the Free Press. “He loved science. He would have been more careful had he known about this virus sooner.

“Losing him has been the hardest thing we’ve ever been through,” she said. “In normal times, the Porters and the Ptolemys would have gathered at Yellow Jacket to hug, cry, laugh and tell stories. Covid19 not only took my dad but it has taken any chance to grieve with our loved ones.

“My heart is broken for Sharon. He was her soulmate.

“Dad was kind, loving, clever, smart, ornery, and really funny. We are going to miss him beyond words and our world has been forever changed.”

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