It may feel like another lifetime ago, but Friday was the six-month mark from when Gov. Jared Polis issued Colorado’s first stay-at-home order, an extreme measure to slow the spread of COVID-19 at a time of deep confusion and worry.
“It’s been a pretty incredible journey,” said Rachel Herlihy, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Our response was aggressive, swift and early as we identified cases in the state.”
COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December, and eventually made its way overseas into the U.S. a month later. The first confirmed case in Colorado was announced on March 5.
Six months later, Colorado has more than 67,000 confirmed cases and nearly 2,000 deaths. Across the U.S., the virus has killed more than 200,000 people.
Here in Southwest Colorado, emergency preparation began in February, said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, the health department that covers Archuleta and La Plata counties.
At the time, health officials were unsure about the seriousness of the new virus, Jollon said. But soon, it became clear the virus was spreading at an alarming rate, and possibly held a higher mortality rate than normal viruses.
“I think we were right to get started that early with our planning,” Jollon said.
On March 13, Colorado reported its first COVID-19 death. On March 25, a week after restaurants were ordered to close down in-person dining and with cases spiking to over a thousand, Polis issued the stay-at-home order.
The statewide shutdown did help “flatten the curve,” a term used to refer to the attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 over a longer period of time so that health care facilities would not be overwhelmed.
“We had a large wave early on,” Herlihy said. “But since, we’ve really been quite successful in suppressing the virus in the state.”
But the shutdown did have significant impacts to the economy. Some restaurants closed their doors for good, such as The Palace Restaurant as well as Eno Cocktail Lounge and Wine Bar, and unemployment went soaring.
Given the luxury of hindsight six months into the pandemic, Jollon said the shutdown could have been avoided had the means been put in place before the outbreak to have adequate testing and proper messaging around face coverings.
But the lack of a national strategy left many states and health departments on their own. And in the early days, residents should have been told a simple cloth mask would suffice, as medical masks were in short supply.
“That was a big mistake,” Jollon said. “(But) with the information we had at the time, the shutdowns, as difficult as they were, and as tough as the consequences of the shutdowns are, they were the right decision for that time.”
For the most part, Durangoans stayed home, social distanced and wore masks in public, keeping positive cases low and accomplishing the goal of “flattening the curve” through early spring and not maxing out local heath care centers.
Requests for comment to Michael Murphy, interim CEO of Mercy Regional Medical Center, were not returned for this story.
The restrictions were not unanimously embraced, however. A rally in downtown Durango in late May saw about 200 people protesting the public health orders, similar to other parts of the country.
“What have we become, to let ourselves be governed and treated like cowards?” said John Avery, a local rancher and organizer of the event, to the crowd. “This is our time to be strong. Take a stand. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear rule your life.”
Slowly, as spring gave way to summer, with many cities still closed down and air travel an undesirable option, tourists began to flood Southwest Colorado, seeing the region’s vast outdoors as a safe haven for vacationing.
Michael French, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said the initial shutdown took a devastating hit on the local economy, which relies largely on tourism.
But as states relaxed regulations, Southwest Colorado’s strongest asset – the outdoors – was its saving grace.
Durango’s downtown transformed to accommodate more outside seating. Public lands were seeing unprecedented use. Sales in July and August this year, in fact, outperformed the same time frame in 2019, French said.
“What happened downtown was phenomenal,” he said. “We’ve come out of this incredibly well through the summer.”
And despite an influx of tourists and a spike in cases in July, La Plata County’s positive cases have remained relatively low at 274 as of Friday, with two “death among cases,” which means the person had COVID-19 at the time of death but didn’t necessarily die from COVID-19.
Jollon said she believes the cases have remained low because residents are wearing face coverings in public, social distancing and not gathering in large crowds – all staple public health guidelines.
“What we’ve done right as a community is following those directions and taking it seriously and understanding that we are all in this together,” she said.
But many challenges lay ahead in the coming months.
As the cold weather sets in, tourism numbers will drop, and so too will sales at local restaurants and shops. Many of the adaptive solutions to the virus, like bump-outs, will also go away during the winter months.
“There’s some definite red flags on the horizon,” French said. “Even though we’ve done an incredible job of reopening and balancing public health and economic health ... we’ve got a tough few months in front of us.”
Durango’s top winter draw – Purgatory Resort – is eyeing a Nov. 21 opening, said General Manager Dave Rathbun.
Purgatory Resort, along with all Colorado ski resorts, was abruptly shut down on the evening of March 14 at the height of the season after infection rates were found to be up to 30 times higher in places like Vail than along the Front Range.
Purgatory Resort’s slopes would remain vacant for the rest of the season.
“It was challenging to keep everyone with a sense of optimism and staying positive when things were changing every moment and there was no direction,” Rathbun said.
Purgatory Resort was able to reopen and offer its summer activities, which brought in a “remarkable” amount of visitors, all the while avoiding a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“It appears, with a few exceptions here and there, in general, outdoor recreation is not spreading the pandemic,” Rathbun said. “And that’s positive news.”
Resort officials began discussions this week with SJBPH about what a winter ski season may look like.
One of the biggest challenges is many of the parking lots at the resort require a shuttle to the mountain, Rathbun said. And like most ski resorts, lodges and restaurants are a huge part of the experience.
But given the successes and lessons learned from operating this summer, the resort is hopeful for the winter season.
“We remain optimistic, but we’re also being pretty realistic,” Rathbun said.
While national efforts are afoot to come up with a vaccine, it won’t be a silver bullet, Jollon said. Looking toward the day when the pandemic is behind us will likely take a multipronged approach, she said.
CDPHE’s Herlihy, too, said it will be important to look at the pandemic’s indirect effects, like people who suffer from loneliness and isolation.
“As time goes on, we’re going to learn more and more about those indirect impacts and increase focus on those, as well,” she said. “We know the (challenge) will continue. ... We all believe this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
But for the immediate future, cooperation in the community on matters like wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing can at least help residents return to some sense of normalcy, Jollon said.
“It’s really up to us how carefully we want to conduct our lives and businesses in ways that limit the spread of infection,” she said. “The more we can figure out how we can do both, the more we can live in a less restrictive, less fearful life.”