After a lively debate last week with heated exchanges over face masks, Montezuma County leaders agreed to submit a request for a state exemption on some COVID-19 restrictions to allow businesses such as restaurants and fitness areas to host customers.
The proposal requires approval by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, and a decision is expected to take a week or longer.
The detailed plan was signed off on by the Montezuma County Board of Health, which is composed of the Board of County Commissioners, county health department physician Dr. Kent Aikin and Southwest Health System CEO Tony Sudduth. If approved by the state, the proposal would apply to businesses in the county, including Cortez, Dolores and Mancos.
It asks that restaurants, gyms, fitness centers and retail stores be allowed to serve up to 40% of their occupancy capacity. Employees would be required to wear masks if interacting with the public, and masks would be mandatory for all restaurant staff, according to the proposal.
Under current state restrictions, gyms and restaurant dining areas are closed, and gatherings in nonessential retail stores are limited to 10 people per store. Employees in critical and noncritical businesses in contact with the public are required to wear masks, and the county’s plan keeps that rule. Under the exemption proposal to open dining areas at 40% capacity, the county adds that all restaurant staff must wear masks.
Masking awarenessSudduth, who also manages Southwest Memorial Hospital, said he has noticed some businesses do not comply with state-required prevention measures. Calling noncompliance “the break in the process,” he agreed to the plan only “as long as people are compliant.”
The requirement to wear a mask struck a nerve with Commissioner Larry Don Suckla and sparked an argument with Sudduth, who said he had questioned a business owner over noncompliance with state guidelines.
Suckla claimed Sudduth had overstepped his role. Suckla added he was skeptical of heavy enforcement and fines for not wearing face coverings.
“Masks are ridiculous,” Suckla said, adding that enforcement appeared to be “harassment” of local businesses.
Sudduth objected, saying he would not support the proposal “if a local leader has this type of attitude.”
Not wearing masks or face coverings puts people at risk, he said, and could contribute to a surge of coronavirus cases.
“Ultimately, I have to protect my staff, who are in contact with positive cases,” Sudduth said.
Suckla claimed extended use of masks could breed bacteria or cause hyperventilation. He also took issue with Sudduth’s salary, an estimate that Sudduth said was inaccurate and off-topic.
As the exchange continued, Suckla argued that if SHS did not support the exemption plan, it “would destroy the community.” Sudduth retorted that it was Suckla who “did not care about the health of the community” with his attitude about masks.
County Health Department Director Bobbi Lock reminded everyone that the governor’s order on masks for employees has enforcement authority. If there is a noncompliant business, officials would visit the site and educate staff and owners. A second act of noncompliance might bring a visit with health officials and law enforcement officers, and a $1,000 fine and jail time.
‘Give them a chance’If the exemption were approved, businesses still would be required to practice 6 feet of social distancing, wear face coverings or masks, maintain physical barriers, increase sanitation, monitor symptoms, maintain no-touch payment methods, and post regulations. Customers would be encouraged to wear face coverings.
“There are 700 businesses in this area, and not all of them are open. We’re saying give them a chance to reopen,” said Commissioner Jim Candelaria.
“Give them a chance to survive and abide by regulations,” added Commissioner Keenan Ertel. “It’s a fair ask.”
Health officials warned that increased public interaction could cause an increase in virus infections and put pressure on the health care system. If new cases doubled within a 14-day period, the plan could be scaled back, officials said.
Health care capacityFor exemptions to be considered, the state requires that the local health care system be able to handle a potential surge in cases, prevention measures level out new cases and rapid testing be available.
Southwest Memorial has treated three patients and has the capacity for others, said Sudduth. The hospital’s 53 beds includes four ICU beds, 16 medical surgery beds, 33 convalescent beds, seven negative pressure rooms and five ventilators.
Southwest Memorial’s COVID-19 test includes an Abbott device. SHS has about 30 test kits for the Abbott and has ordered 180 tests, the maximum allowed because of a nationwide shortage.
Southwest Health System also has ordered lab equipment that would allow for more widespread, rapid COVID-19 tests in-house. The county pitched in $36,000 toward the $100,000 cost.
If positive tests increased, so would case investigations, said Bobbi Lock, Montezuma County health department director. For example, 130 people were contacted after 17 positive cases in the county.
The commissioners said the county would pay for additional contact tracing staff if needed.
Balancing actThe nation is grappling with how to restart local economies while protecting the public from the coronavirus.
Some communities are reopening faster than others, accepting a higher risk of an outbreak. Others have chosen to retain tight restrictions until the pandemic eases, warning that a surge of cases could overwhelm health facilities and staff.
As of Monday, Montezuma County had recorded 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19, two deaths, and 11 recoveries. Dolores County has 0 cases, and La Plata County 63 cases. Statewide, as of Monday, there have been 16,907 cases and 851 deaths. Based on modeling, the case number could be over 70,000, according to state health officials, who worry that people are spreading COVID-19 unknowingly. In New Mexico, San Juan County reported 781 cases and 57 deaths.
Montezuma County leaders agreed the need to reopen the economy was urgent, and with adequate measures it could be done safely. County Commissioners Candelaria, Suckla and Ertel cited low numbers of cases relative to Front Range counties, sufficient health care capacity, testing programs and the county’s low population and geographic isolation as reasons for reopening businesses.
“Businesses are failing and will go away if this keeps dragging on another month or two,” Ertel said.
Masks are the new normalIt was noted that preventive restrictions can be a sticking point, but compliance benefits residents.
Buy-in on masks and social distancing is key to success, Lock emphasized, and most people and businesses are on board.
“My experience is to lead by example,” said Aikin. “We all need to buy into it. Wear a mask when in a situation of spreading virus to other people. In a time of crisis we have a responsibility to the community.”
Health officials reiterated that because of limited testing and the presence of asymptomatic cases, the current number of positive cases probably is low. While some residents say masks are excessive, health officials say extra caution is needed.
At the meeting, county and health officials met in the commissioners’ room, and it was broadcast over the county YouTube page and by Mesa Media Productions. Officials appeared to be 6 feet apart. Health department staff along with County Administrator Shak Powers wore masks. The commissioners and Sudduth did not.
In the end, Suckla, Candelaria and Ertel voted to submit the proposed exemption plan with the requirement that employees in contact with the public wear face coverings.
“I am willing to wear a mask and ask businesses to wear a mask if it allows people to go to work and provide for their families,” Candelaria said.