Gunnison County COVID-19 Reopening Sends Hopeful Message
After question of public health orders by Texas AG, county carefully reopens

by Avery Martinez

When the coronavirus pandemic started, Gunnison County, situated high in the Rockies, was cautious — so much so that it closed its borders to nearly all outsiders and to many part-time residents as well. However, the county has since taken steps to carefully reopen and shows little hit to the economy. Now, some part-time residents are seeking to change policies and make sure they don’t lose access — or their voice — in the community.

“We’ve been doing great, but, like the rest of the state, we’ve seen an uptick in cases,” Andrew Sandstrom, Gunnison County public information officer, said. “The bright spot there is that we’re not seeing impacts on our healthcare system yet.”

The number of coronavirus cases was part of the reason previous public health orders from the county prohibited non-resident homeowners from entering the county, though there was a process for requesting entry. Concerns were also raised about the limited options for supplies, the small 24-bed ICU facility at the local hospital and the distance to other health centers. This led to an April letter from the Texas Attorney General’s Office that questioned the constitutionality of the county’s public health orders. However, nothing came of the question after Gunnison County sent back their response.

The county has seen mixed reactions to COVID actions, but no current lawsuits exist, to Sandstrom’s knowledge. A local group, the Gunnison Valley 2nd Homeowners Political Action Committee, started by local Jim Moran, aims to raise money for having a larger political voice in the community for second-homeowners, Sandstorm said.

The committee looks to “permanently” stand and hold elected officials accountable and give “all non-resident property owners and local business owners a voice (especially where they don’t have a vote), and seek the removal of any politician who RULES rather than GOVERNS,” according to the group’s website, gv2hpac.org.

The group’s first goal is to raise funds allowing them to “oppose government overreach” and its website states nothing is more difficult that opposing “the county’s and town’s fast moving edicts on the fly without resources, organization and leadership.” The group also looks to get involved with opposing the current “rule” and move elected officials back to governance. It plans for one individual representing their interests in all jurisdictions within the county.

The group did not return requests for comment, and Sandstrom said he was unaware whether any prior cases or COVID-19 had anything to do with its creation.

Now, however, Gunnison County is open once again — with precautions, Sandstrom explained. The county is now under a long-term public health order, which works under a five-tier color-coded system — called the “Coronameter” — which works like the fire danger color-code system. The system is designed to make it easier for the public and businesses to understand the level of community risk from COVID-19, and the ensuing restrictions in place at each level of the meter.

Earlier in the pandemic, the county was considering rewriting a 30-page legal document every week to address its response to the changing situation, Sandstrom said. The goal was to build a long-standing order that the community could use to better understand what it meant both for their lives and their businesses.

Metrics, based on the number of positive cases and rates going up or down and how much of an impact has it made on the health care system, are used to determine what level of the meter the area is currently sitting at.

The county also met with all entities that had some enforcement capacity and has had success in random walkthroughs of businesses to ensure compliance. Each business receives a report card, Sandstrom said, which rates the business’s level of compliance and how to improve or how it exceeds expectations.

“We were early to close down, but we were also early to open up,” Sandstrom said. The county’s first spike of COVID was earlier than most other areas, but the county had mostly reopened by June.

In terms of the county’s economy, Sandstrom said Gunnison shows promising signs for the future. For Crested Butte, the lodging tax for June was only down 1% year-over-year, and total sales tax was only down 4% year-over-year, he said.

This article appeared in the August 3 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other complete articles from that issue, order a copy online.