The Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners has rescinded its declaration of a local health emergency issued March 18 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 14, commissioners claimed there was no longer a health emergency in the county because of relatively low numbers of active COVID-19 cases.
The county has recorded 28 coronavirus cases and two deaths, and one death of a man who tested positive but died of alcohol poisoning.
Of the 28 cases, there are 15 active cases and 13 recoveries. There have been 516 negative tests.
“We don’t have a health emergency here,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel.
A benefit of declaring the public health emergency is that the county is eligible for state or federal reimbursement programs to offset the costs of fighting the pandemic. Rescinding the emergency order “puts us at risk for losing reimbursement monies,” said county attorney John Baxter.
The commissioners reported $140,000 of pandemic-related expenses May 12. Of that amount, $80,000 was low-interest emergency loans issued to local businesses as part of an economic recovery program from Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado. And $36,000 was donated to Southwest Memorial Hospital to help pay for a COVID-19 rapid-testing equipment, which arrived last week.
The county also is paying for convalescent motel rooms to house quarantined patients or health care workers who cannot risk infecting family members at home.
Last week, the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment denied the county’s request for a variance from state business restrictions.
“It is no longer a health emergency, it is an economic emergency,” said Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.
The county asked that gyms and restaurants be allowed to reopen at 40% capacity with strict COVID-19 prevention measures. The plan had support from Montezuma Department of Public Health and Southwest Memorial Hospital. Restaurant dining areas and gyms remain under a state closure order.
But in a May 11 letter to the county, CDPHE said the threat of the virus in Montezuma County was too high to loosen state restrictions. It said cases continued to rise, and it expressed concerns about high rates of infection rates in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.
As of May 18, San Juan County, New Mexico, reported 1,274 cases and 84 deaths. McKinley County listed 1,787 cases and 69 deaths.
Counties want local controlSo far, 31 counties have requested variances from CDPHE to allow more businesses to reopen, and nine have been approved.
Montezuma County officials were critical of state restrictions for rural counties, saying they lacked flexibility and local control. The broad restrictions favor large corporations and hurt the small-business owner, county officials said.
During public comment, Rob Pope questioned the logic of the restrictions.
“You see people standing in line to buy marijuana, but I can’t go into a restaurant for some food,” he said.
In its argument for the variance, commissioners cited relatively low cases, strong capacity and preparedness at Southwest Memorial Hospital, and the urgency to restart the economy to save local businesses. They said strict precautions in the variance plan were sufficient to prevent a spike of COVID-19, and prevention efforts appeared to be working.
“We have seen people shopping normally at grocery stores, Walmart, liquor stores, hardware stores, marijuana shops, and our case numbers have not jumped off the charts,” Ertel said. “It is discrimination for the state to say which business can open and which cannot. It is time to let legitimate businesses open their doors so they can save themselves from disaster.”
“We are handcuffed and being held hostage for what is happening in counties that are not in Colorado,” said Commissioner Jim Candelaria. “Our health facilities have not been overwhelmed and we are prepared if there were to be a spike.” </CHARACTER>
‘Fierce independence’In a letter posted to the community, commissioners said they were fighting for local businesses.
“We want to point out that Montezuma County never took steps to close any private business or place of worship and have pushed back against the state’s one-size-fits-all orders.”
The letter has a veiled message of civil disobedience, stating that the commissioners “have no authority over your private business,” and asking business owners to “display common sense and make decisions that are in the best interest of your business and your customers.”
“Montezuma County is known for the fierce independence and patriotism of its citizens. Your fierce independence and patriotism are needed now.”
There is an implication that the board of county commissioners will not enforce state restrictions. But attorney Baxter reminded the public that there are other law enforcement agencies at play.
“The BOCC does not have the only authority to enforce government or state orders,” he said. “Just because they choose not to, does not mean people are immune from prosecution.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said he has had no issues with businesses complying with state business restrictions. If there were a compliance problem in the sheriff’s jurisdiction, he said it would be up to the health department and county attorney to investigate, and the district attorney would have to press charges.
Nowlin added that the sheriff’s office will not be issuing citations to businesses for alleged violations of Colorado’s coronavirus public health orders. He directed every sheriff deputy to not take enforcement actions on the matter if complaints were received.
This article was republished Saturday to correct Sheriff Steve Nowlin’s stance on alleged violations of Colorado’s public health orders.