Local officials address questions on public lodging, gathering restrictions
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Local leaders answered questions during a virtual panel discussion at Steamboat Springs City Hall on Wednesday about two public health orders that Routt County recently enacted.
The discussion, featuring Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, Steamboat Springs City Council President Jason Lacy and Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen, was the third in a series of town hall-style meetings to address people’s questions about the local response to the global outbreak of a novel coronavirus. Steamboat Pilot & Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman moderates the panels, which are hosted by the city and Routt County.
The public health orders, which took effect 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, are the latest measures to limit the spread of the virus. The first order sets restrictions on lodging, prohibiting any new reservations at all lodging companies in the county, including hotels, motels, short-term rentals and campgrounds. Reservations beginning on or after 8 a.m. Friday, March 27, will be canceled.
The second order concerns social distancing. It prohibits gatherings of more than five people, unless the people are part of the same household. When in groups, people must keep 6 feet of distance between each other.
Why should people follow the public health orders?
Voluntary compliance is essential to making the orders effective, Lacy said. The Routt County Department of Public Health developed the measures after careful consideration and with guidance from local, state and federal officials. The main purpose, he said, is to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands of people around the world in a matter of months.
“All you have to do is look at countries around the world and see places that didn’t implement these kind of changes early enough. They are regretting it, and they wish they would have implemented them earlier,” Lacy said.
Experts have attributed the high death toll rates in countries like Italy and Spain, which have been among the hardest-hit in the pandemic, to a lack of early efforts to track, test and prevent the spread of virus clusters.
With a backlog in diagnostic testing in the U.S., Routt County’s public health orders seek to reduce the number of new cases of COVID-19, a strategy known as “flattening the curve.”
The public health orders come after officials observed unsafe behavior in the community, Commissioner Melton said. People have continued to socialize in close proximity at places like post offices, gas stations and in neighborhoods. Some people have held parties or allowed their children to have sleepovers.
Visitors also contributed to the spread of the virus. A group of Australians who visited Steamboat later tested positive for COVID-19 after they returned home earlier in the month. Since then, residents also have tested positive, which confirmed evidence of community spread.
“Our plea to everyone is to do their part in reducing contact you have with people outside of your household in any way that you can,” Melton said.
While she believes most people want to do the right thing and take responsibility for limiting the spread of the virus, Melton said the public health orders are necessary to ensure a better response.
What happens if people do not follow the public health orders?
Local law enforcement has the power to enforce the orders, Christensen said. All agencies in Routt County will prioritize urging voluntary compliance when enforcing the orders, he added, but punitive measures exist.
Maximum penalties include up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine, according to Christensen.
“We would prefer to never have to give a ticket,” he said.
If people refuse to follow the orders, Christensen added his officers and those across the county have the power to incarcerate violators.
“We really don’t want to get there. We really want people to voluntarily comply,” he said.
What if residents have guests planning to visit and stay in their homes?
While not strictly prohibited under the orders, Melton discourages anyone from outside of Routt County from visiting the area. This includes residents who may have invited guests to stay with them.
“We really need everyone in the community to be a partner in reducing contact,” Melton said.
She urges those who had planned to visit Routt County to postpone their trip until the crisis has been resolved.
The more people who are in the county, the more likely health care facilities could be overwhelmed with patients. Melton emphasized that UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center currently has the capacity and resources to serve the community, but it could not handle an influx of visitors if they become sick or injured.
“Every person who is in town is a potential person who might need hospital services,” she said.
How are local businesses responding to the lodging ban?
Lacy and Melton met with local business organizations, such as the Steamboat Springs Chamber and the Steamboat Springs Lodging Association, before Routt County enacted the lodging ban.
While economic impacts are an inevitable consequence of the public health orders, Lacy said businesses generally support the measures.
“They know in the long run, this is the right thing to do,” he said.
On Tuesday, Melton met with members of the Lodging Association. The members unanimously agreed to the lodging ban, she said, describing it as one of the most uplifting moments of the crisis.
“That means a lot to us,” Melton said. “These are really, really hard decisions that we do not take lightly at all. We recognize this is a significant personal and financial sacrifice for these businesses to make.”
Why is Routt County, not the city of Steamboat Springs, leading public health matters?
Routt County serves as the local board of health, Lacy explained. All public health directives in the county come from the Routt County Department of Public Health. This helps to streamline guidelines and directives, including the recent health orders.
“It would be problematic if municipalities all had different guidelines,” Lacy explained. “That would create a lot more confusion. People would have a harder time knowing the guidelines.”
The county also oversees an emergency operations center, which has been deployed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Entities from across the county — such as fire departments, police departments, school districts and municipal leaders — participate in the operations center to ensure a comprehensive response. Melton said this is a similar way the county would handle other major emergencies, such as natural disasters.
Is Routt County considering stricter measures in the future?
On Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order, requiring people to avoid unnecessary travel and interactions with others outside their households.
Routt County had not enacted such an order, but Melton said local officials were preparing such an event. Polis initially had resisted a statewide order, but changed his mind as Colorado’s death rate grew from 11 to 19 in a single day.
Melton said stricter measures at the local level could include closing all nonessential businesses. Denver already had enacted a stay-at-home order before Polis extended it to the rest of Colorado, but some businesses deemed essential could continue to operate. For now, grocery stores, liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries are among the list of businesses that could remain open.
“The more the community can limit contact and spread of the virus, the less these kind of orders become necessary,” Melton emphasized.
Where should people go if they have more questions about COVID-19 or how Routt County is responding?
Both the county and city have established ways for the public to ask questions about the pandemic and what officials are doing to keep the public safe.
The Routt County Department of Public Health accepts nonemergency calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Call 970-871-8444.
The city encourages people with questions to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today also accepts questions at email@example.com.
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.