Elephant Rock campground closed

Chaffee County Public Health announced the county was closed to visitors last month in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 from neighboring counties and Front Range cities.

“Chaffee County is CLOSED to visitors, tourism, or leisure until further notice. Please do not invite your friends from out of county or out of state,” Chaffee County Public Health director Andrea Carlstrom reiterated in her COVID-19 situation awareness report April 7.

“This includes all trails, rivers, lakes and other outdoor recreation areas. We all look forward to a time when we are open and back to normal, but that can only happen if everyone does their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

A CDOT sign posted on Trout Creek Pass urging visitors to stay out of Chaffee County – Keep Chaffee Safe. Please stay home” – may seem antithetical to its “open for business” attitude.

It may seem disquieting as the county would typically be preparing for its vital tourist season beginning next month, but Carlstrom said that “we believe that the early, proactive measures taken by Chaffee County residents and businesses are helping to slow the spread of COVID-19 within our community.

“Our hospital, clinics, and public health system are not overwhelmed because of this crisis, giving everyone sufficient time to prepare for a surge of cases that may happen in the month of April,” she said. “We are being proactive, not reactive, to the best of our abilities.”

Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt said that, while he has received comments from across the spectrum regarding the county’s response to COVID-19, “I’m getting a lot of support for the idea that we just need to hunker down and take our medicine, so to speak, and the better job we do, the healthier we’ll be and the sooner this will be over.”

Compared to other counties in the high country, Chaffee County was late to get its first confirmed positive case of the pandemic virus. As of Tuesday’s report, 34 positive cases have been recorded by the county health department, with two deaths.

Nineteen positive cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the Columbine Manor long-term care facility in Salida.

Because of limited testing capabilities, Carlstrom said that these numbers do not necessarily reflect the prevalence of COVID-19 in Chaffee County.

“We all need to assume that widespread community transmission is happening and follow all stay-at-home and safety recommendations,” she said.

The county’s one major hospital, Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, is operating at 32 percent capacity with 8 out of 25 beds utilized and no patients hospitalized with COVID-19, as of Carlstrom’s April 7 report.

HRRMC has received 190 tests for the virus, with 14 positive results, 163 negative and 13 pending.

“Overall think our county residents have been doing a good job,” said Felt. “The statistics are really hard to analyze because there’s so little testing going on, but one thing you can’t really argue with is we’ve been working through this and as far as I know right now we don’t have anybody in the hospital.

“We’ve got a bunch of sick people over at Columbine, but we don’t have any of our general population in the hospital, I believe, with COVID-19. I think we have a lot of mild cases and a lot of asymptomatic people, but the fact that our hospital isn’t full of really sick people speaks really well to how people have been conducting themselves.”

The county orders on COVID-19 are legally enforceable, but Felt said “We have a small, rural sheriff’s department, we have a small legal department, so our goal all along has been focused on the messaging and cause-and-effect. Do these things so your neighbor doesn’t get sick. That’s really been our emphasis, messaging over enforcement and trying to be consistent, a consistent voice.”

He said that so far, it has worked well to follow the lead of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ measures to fight the virus, “even when we know he’s going to do something tomorrow, it seems to work better if we wait ‘til tomorrow.”

“One of the real concerns I have, and one thing that I’ve been hoping is that the governor will provide even stronger guidance to folks on the Front Range to stay in their own zip code, as has been mentioned before, is that I don’t think we have the law enforcement capacity up here to manage these people or to enforce these kinds of public health orders. But I really worry about county residents trying to do that themselves and doing their own enforcement. So my hope has been ‘Hey, governor, can you cut this off at the source,’” Felt said.

Colorado Counties, Inc, a nonprofit lobbying group in Denver, has been working on messaging to the governor to strengthen his position on keeping Front Range Coloradans at home, Felt said.

At the local municipal level, Buena Vista town administrator Phillip Puckett said, “We are here to uphold our code, our laws, we are here to inform and educate. So whether it’s an order from the state, an order from the county public health department, an order from our county, whatever, we are doing our part to make sure that information gets out.”

Earlier this week, he said, “We put out a lot more signage in our parks and trailheads and areas where there’s visibility and where people do tend to gather to get that information out.”

The town licenses short term rentals within its limits, so “our staff, throughout this, has been communicating the information that’s been coming out, whether that’s direct orders, requirements or suggestions. So I feel we’ve been getting really good information to our short term rental owners about what they’re allowed and not allowed to do during this time,” Puckett said.

“We have police patrol go around to the typical spots where people do tend to gather, and if they do see people in groups, they are stopping and talking with those folks and letting them know what the county orders are and making sure they disperse, things like that,” he said.

Puckett said that people who believe they know of a short term rental operating in violation of the county health order should inform BVPD.

In one recent example, BVPD was notified of a VRBO that had people staying in it. Upon investigation, officers learned that the home was being offered to a family that had lost their housing, Puckett said.

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