What is Save Routt County? | SteamboatToday.com

What is Save Routt County?

Group has grown to about 130 active members who want to see restaurants, businesses and schools open up

A protester holds a sign reading, "We are all essential!" on Lincoln Avenue on Dec. 4 as part of a “Save Routt County” rally against local COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Saturday after Veterans Day, Nov. 14, a group of a dozen moms gathered together to talk about their children and how they felt COVID-19 restrictions were affecting them.

“We came together, because we had all been discussing how this forced shutdown of our county is having a serious impact on our kids,” said Rachael Jacobson, a Steamboat Springs mother of four children. “These 12 particular concerned moms decided that we finally wanted to do something about it.”

When they left the meeting, members of the group started reaching out to their friends and neighbors to get them on board. They had a chat session they called “Freedom Fighters,” but not everyone liked that name.

The original moms, and others they were able to recruit, held Zoom meetings and talked about how to engage the community. They ultimately decided to submit a letter to the editor to the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Since then, the group has grown to include a variety of people, Jacobson said, including many who are currently out of a job.

“We just want to be advocates for people that maybe either don’t have a voice or don’t feel like they have a voice, for our rights and for our freedoms,” Jacobson said. “That really is what we are all about.”

County sales tax revenues from restaurants are down about 6% for the year through October, representing a loss of about $5.2 million in sales. The county’s total sales tax revenue is actually 10% ahead of this time last year, signaling that spending is up overall locally.

Since starting in the middle of November, the group has grown to about 130 active members, Jacobson said, but hundreds more are following the group. Many of the supporters are restaurant workers currently not working because of level red restrictions that prohibit indoor dining.

On Dec. 4, the group held a rally on the lawn of the historic Routt County Courthouse in downtown Steamboat to signal opposition to restrictions state health orders have put in place. Leaders of the group said protests would continue each Saturday until restrictions are lifted.

In the public comment forum of the Routt County Board of Health meeting Wednesday, Jim Hansen, a chairperson for Save Routt County, invited commissioners to take part in a town hall meeting during the planned rally Saturday.

“It would not be appropriate for us as commissioners to attend that kind of event that is technically prohibited by the state’s public health order regarding gatherings,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who said he called Hansen after the meeting to discuss the invitation. “I helped him understand the distinction between conducting that kind of an event and their constitutional right to assemble peacefully out in front of the courthouse.”

Instead, Steamboat Pilot & Today will host a virtual town hall with Routt County Board of Commissioners and county public health officials moderated by Pilot Editor Lisa Schlichtman at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17. Community members will be able to ask questions of the panel in real time as the town hall is happening. The panel will be livestreamed on the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Facebook page and on SteamboatPilot.com.

Hansen said he was excited for the virtual town hall, especially because Public Health Director Roberta Smith and Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington will be participating. Hansen said he hopes they can learn from the commissioners and the commissioners can learn from them.

“I do think it is appropriate for the commissioners to be willing to answer direct questions from the community without having the benefit of seeing the question in advance,” Corrigan said.

Members of Save Routt County said they feel the county has not been transparent about how and why decisions are being made. Commissioners meet several times weekly on Zoom calls that are posted online and Board of Health meetings also are streamed weekly on Wednesdays on the county’s Facebook page.

“I will admit that I have a little bit a frustration when people talk in terms of commissioners not being transparent and somehow concealing information from the public,” Corrigan said. “I reject that assertion categorically. I think we have been completely transparent, and I think there have been many opportunities for folks to observe our proceedings and get a lot of information.”

When Hansen participated in public comment he told commissioners he had just found out about the meeting and said it was a great forum.

To Corrigan, it seemed Hansen was not aware of the meeting previously, though the county has been holding the weekly meetings throughout the pandemic. Corrigan also said despite how much they say it, people still seem confused about what has been imposed by the county and what has been imposed by the state.

“No matter how many times and how many different places we have said this publicly over and over again, there is still a lack of understanding that the public health orders that have created these restrictions on activity in Routt County come from the state of Colorado,” Corrigan said.

The only health order Routt County has beyond state orders is a mask requirement for children ages 3 to 11.

Corrigan said this is potentially a sign that the county’s messaging strategy is not working as effectively as hoped. Still, Corrigan questioned what more the county could do to share the information.

“Short of putting up billboards, I just don’t know what else we can do,” Corrigan said. “But I agree, whatever we have been doing, it is obvious we haven’t been reaching everyone with that information.”

A nonpartisan group?

Leaders of Save Routt County continuously stress that the group is nonpartisan, saying there are Democrats, Republicans and independents in the group. At the rally last Saturday, there was an effort among organizers to ensure people leave partisan messaging at home.

“There was a protester that had an 86 Melton sign, and I walked right up to that person and I said ‘That is not why we’re here,’” Hansen said. “We are not a political action group. We are a nonpartisan group that wants to get the schools open, and we want to get the small business and restaurants open.”

Of the signers of the initial letter to the editor sent to the Pilot and published Nov. 20, one of the first actions taken by the group, about 76% of them are registered to vote in Routt County, according to county voter registration records.

When looking at party affiliation, just over half of the signers of the letter are registered Republicans, while 11% of them are registered Democrats. The rest are unaffiliated, other than a small handful of registered Libertarians, the records show.

Hansen said he is a Republican and has been involved in politics for a long time but stepped away from it for more than a decade. Now he is back to being more vocal and active. He said Save Routt County has become almost a full-time job for him, especially in the past couple weeks.

He said that after speaking at the health meeting Wednesday, he had lots of people from all over the political spectrum reach out to him.

“I am a conservative and a registered Republican, but I had so many progressives that reached out to me, and we had a really good conversation,” Hansen said. “We’re trying to find a win-win to get this economy up and running.”

He said Save Routt County’s focus is to get restaurants and other businesses opened back up and getting the kids back in school.

All students in the Steamboat Springs School District are using a hybrid model where they go to school in cohorts to reduce exposure between students. The district will assess county COVID-19 data after winter break potentially bringing some younger students back full-time in January.

“If the data looks good, we would begin with (kindergarten through second grade) going every day beginning Jan. 19, and if the data continues to be favorable, we would look at grades three through five coming every day on Feb. 1,” said Brad Meeks, district superintendent in an email.

Part of what has made Save Routt County a full-time job for Hansen is because it is difficult to control the message when there is such a diverse group of people involved. He said he is not always aware of other people presenting themselves as speaking for the group.

Hansen said they have set up committees within the group and have been holding meetings to get organized. Some have accused the group of trying to sow discord with local government leaders, but Hansen said that is not the case.

“There is no question that we want more transparency with our local leaders,” Hansen said. “It shocked me yesterday, listening to the health department cite statistic after statistic with Dr. (Brian) Harrington, and the Routt County commissioners didn’t dispute what they were saying. That frustrated us — dig a little deeper.”

Hansen pointed to other counties in the state where commissioners have said they won’t enforce state public health orders such as Weld County, where commissioners issued a statement of their intent to not enforce the orders late last month.

Some restaurants in Weld County said they planned to open despite restrictions not allowing indoor dining, ignoring warnings from state officials that they would suspend business licenses. The Denver Post reported that at least one restaurant had its liquor license temporarily suspended, while others reversed course when contacted by the state.

“I am not prepared to defy state public health orders — that is something that I would never support,” Corrigan said. “I believe that the smartest course of action moving forward is a statewide course of action to address the virus.”

The virus is so prevalent in Colorado at this point, infecting one in every 40 Coloradans, that a statewide approach would be much better than 64 different county level approaches, Corrigan said.

“It does not make sense for there to be 64 different sets of regulations in 64 counties,” Corrigan said. “That is no way to address the virus.”

Members of Save Routt County have called into question how much of an understanding the commissioners have of what is happening to businesses. Jacobson said they feel there needs to be a balanced approach and that the commissioners need to “go to bat” for residents.

“It doesn’t feel like anybody is fighting for us,” she said.

As a longtime business owner in the area, Corrigan said he knows what businesses are going through. During the last financial crisis he had to lay off nearly all of his staff, after losing about 80% of his business, he said.

Corrigan also talks to local businesses frequently.

“Don’t tell me that I am not sensitive to your issues,” Corrigan said. “I totally get it; it is really painful when that happens to you.”

The other Save Routt County

While Jacobson and the other moms landed on the name Save Routt County for the group, they were not the first.

In June, Laura Woods, a former Republican state senator, formed a committee of the same name with the stated purpose of recalling Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton.

Woods registered the issue committee with the secretary of state on June 2, but updated the filing in September, clarifying the committee is an ongoing effort and may not launch until 2021. Woods now said the issue committee has been officially terminated.

There also an effort, through the original Save Routt County committee, to collect signatures to get David Wolfson on the ballot as a county commissioner candidate to run against Corrigan. The effort ultimately failed.

Wolfson submitted a letter to the Pilot & Today earlier this week announcing Save Routt County’s intention hold an open-air town hall with commissioners at Saturday’s rally and identifying himself as a member of the group. Wolfson did not respond to a followup email after initially referring the Pilot to Hansen.

Hansen, Jacobson and Woods all said there is no relationship between the newer Save Routt County group and the original recall effort.

“We should have just come up with a new name, because that was never our goal,” Hansen said. “We’re not a recall effort at all.”

The Save Routt County Facebook page was started in July 2020, well before Jacobson said they got the idea for their group. The page used by the current group is the same page used by the recall effort, and Jacobson said they asked if they could use it, and the former owners of the page allowed it.

“We didn’t want to be working, doing the same thing under two names, and it being confusing when we go to search it,” Jacobson said. “We were told ’no, it is not anything active, I am happy to hand it over to you.’”

While a lot of communication is done through the Facebook page, Jacobson said she doesn’t want to rely on it too much because it could go away. She said in her experience, talking about the pandemic on Facebook draws unwanted attention from the platform’s moderators.

“I don’t want to solely rely on Facebook, because I do believe that we will be either shut down at some point,” Jacobson said.

The group is also using a platform called MeWe as a backup, as well as Instagram and their own website. Still, Jacobson said they would still be on Facebook because that is where a lot of people are.

The first letter

The first letter submitted to the Pilot and published Nov. 20 by members of the group asked for transparency about PCR testing in the community, wanting to know the cycle threshold of the tests being used. It had about 270 peoples name attached to it.

The cycle threshold, often referred to as Ct values, is how many times a sample is amplified before it is tested for COVID-19. Ct values have been the subject of debunked claims that they are inflating cases of COVID-19 with false positives.

But fact-checkers like Health Feedback, a nonpartisan site that works to assess the accuracy of published health claims, said the claim incorrectly conflates contagiousness with the presence of infection.

“Regardless of whether a person tested positive with a high or low viral load, a positive test indicates that the person is or has been infected with the virus, which qualifies them as a COVID-19 case,” according to Health Feedback. “The high number of COVID-19 cases reported in the United States is due to a large number of infected people, not the PCR test’s sensitivity.”

The letter referred to a Colorado Open Records Act request make six weeks prior, and according to Routt County Attorney Erick Knaus, had already been dealt with. The initial request came from Ken Mauldin, a signer of the letter, asking the county to provide Ct values for tests used in the county since March, according to emails shared by Mauldin with the Pilot.

Knaus informed Mauldin the county does not maintain that information, and instead, told him to contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Mauldin responded saying he felt the county did have the information but would submit his request to the state as Knaus suggested.

After searching further, Knaus again told Maudlin the county did not have the information, providing the contact information of people at the state’s lab.

But, six weeks later, the request was the subject the letter accusing the county of not being transparent, when the request had been addressed. Knaus said he stated he had not received a request in regards to the letter at a Board of Health meeting because the prior one had been dealt with and there was not another request.

“CORA requires us to follow our policy and the submission of our CORA request form. That was never received,” Knaus said.

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