Montezuma County commissioners have defied Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ COVID-19 prevention orders, and one suggested the local health department could face firings and a reduced budget if it enforced them.
Commissioners said statewide mandates lack flexibility for rural counties, where there are fewer people and coronavirus cases.
The debate about enforcing the mask order has taken place in a tense political atmosphere.
The county’s health department, which is charged with disease prevention, follows directives from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Local health officials can enforce public health orders through the CDPHE and local district attorney’s offices but have backed off that approach in favor of educating the public about prevention measures, officials said.
The Montezuma County Public Health Department is overseen by the county Board of Health, which is made up of the three county commissioners, Larry Don Suckla, Keenan Ertel and Jim Candelaria. They control a portion of the health department’s budget and hire the director.
In meetings about pandemic management, the health department has faced pressure to avoid overly strict enforcement. County officials are concerned it will further harm businesses and the economy.
During a May 14 meeting, a resident raised the question of who controls the health department – the county or the state. Suckla responded that “they are supposed to be run by us. We do have control because we can fire them.”
During another meeting about enforcement, Suckla suggested the county pay the fines for any business ticketed for violating state health orders, then reduce the health department’s budget by the same amount.
“We have butted heads with the health department on the issue of enforcement,” Suckla said in an interview, “but we’ve worked it out so that education about prevention and protection is the better approach.”
Commissioners also pushed back when there was a suggestion to hire more health workers and turn the fairgrounds into a field hospital.
Bobbi Lock, director of the health department, said he’s sticking with what public health agencies are charged with doing, “which is education and prevention.”
“Those are our pillars on how to operate. One of the key prevention measures is wearing a facial covering, especially when indoors,” he said.
He added: “A key concept that we all need to remember as we work our way through this pandemic is that public health and financial health of our community are not separate entities,” Lock said. “In fact, they are intertwined like a web. The two work in unison to make our community healthier, both physically and financially. If our case counts continue on the current trajectory that we are on, we risk the health of both components for Montezuma County. We want our businesses to remain open. We want our schools to be able to open. We want our students and all the staff involved in the education process to be as safe as possible.”