UPDATED: This story was updated at 1:33 p.m. on March 16, 2020, to report sweeping changes to the Gunnison County public health order, including closing all short-term lodging.
Gunnison County has ordered a dramatic step in the fight against COVID-19: Bars and restaurants can no longer serve people 60 years and older.
Those establishments can remain open as long as they don’t allow more than 50 people inside at any time. But, in a reverse on the standard carding of minors, those who appear to be older than 60 and thus in the high-risk category for the virus, must be carded and turned away. Owners of restaurants and bars that don’t comply risk fines and imprisonment.
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This decree came a day before the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommended Sunday that anyone who lives in Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin or Summit counties or has visited there in the past week should minimize contact with other people, even if they are asymptomatic and even if they aren’t in the high-risk category.
That state advisory affects much more than the older set, but, for now, Gunnison County is sticking to its over-60 rule for watering holes and eating establishments.
“We are trying to protect our most vulnerable population,” said Andrew Sandstrom, the public information officer for the Gunnison County Incident Command group that has been pulled together in recent weeks to deal with the coronavirus.
The point might soon be moot, though — Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday said the federal government on Monday will release updated guidance for restaurants and bars. Ohio and Illinois have already ordered restaurants and bars to close to dine-in customers to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
And on Monday, Gunnison County updated its public health order to close all short-term housing and send visitors home “immediately, by the safest and fastest available means. We ask that they self-isolate upon return.”
The order also bans all in-person restaurant and retail transactions (with some exceptions for grocery and hardware stores and medical facilities), and reduces the size of gatherings to 10 people or fewer. Buses are included in the “gathering” rule.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Monday that Gunnison County, with seven positive COVID-19 cases, has the third highest rate of infection in the state behind Eagle and Pitkin counties.
MORE: Colorado’s other pandemic: The 1918 flu and the lessons learned — or maybe not — for coronavirus
Edict appeared to keep people 60+ from going to the grocery store, too
The 60+ edict in Gunnison County set off an uproar among bar and restaurant owners and patrons Saturday — and even brought threats of age-discrimination lawsuits from turned-away patrons who were possibly already stung by social media references calling COVID-19 the “boomer removal” virus.
But it remained in effect even after the state advised Sunday afternoon that anyone who lives in Gunnison County, or who had visited in the seven prior days, to minimize contact with others.
The confusion Saturday resulted in clarifications after it appeared the older set would be banned from any establishment or event where more than 50 people were gathered. That would mean no trips to the City Market in Gunnison for groceries or the neighboring Walmart store, or any other store where more than 50 people might be shopping at one time.
A clarification issued Sunday specified that over-60 folks could go to medical facilities, hardware stores, grocery stores and discount department stores – as long as the 50-person limit wasn’t exceeded. But the county discouraged people in that age group from doing so.
“We were fielding a lot of questions and we got some complaints so we clarified the order,” Sandstrom said.
MORE: Colorado governor orders all ski resorts to close for at least a week in extraordinary move
There may be more changes in store for the Town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County Monday. The Crested Butte Town Board, in an emergency session Sunday afternoon, considered closing all businesses to the public with the exception of grocery stores, gas stations, liquor stores/dispensaries, medical offices and hardware stores.
Some businesses, including bars and restaurants, might be allowed to have limited engagement with the public. They could only offer food through to-go or delivery, or they could be allowed to stay open if they maintain maximum social distancing and offer anti-bacterial wipes. Retail stores could only serve customers by appointment. Only one customer at a time would be allowed inside. Businesses with no public interaction or that have only one member of the public at a time could remain open.
Violations could result in 30-day closures of the businesses.
Those measures could be enacted Monday. Gunnison County will also be considering stricter measures Monday.
Gunnison County is one of those mountain counties in a particular coronavirus bind because it is rural and off-the-major-beaten-path. But until Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski areas to shut down for at least a week, the area was drawing many visitors to mountain amenities in Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte. Like its neighboring mountain-resort counties, it is also particularly vulnerable to being quickly overrun in a pandemic because its medical facilities are small in comparison to its number of visitors.
The issue is health care capacity at county’s one small hospital
The Gunnison Valley Hospital – the only hospital in the county – has just 24 beds. It currently has two ventilators for serious coronavirus cases, with two more on order. An attempt to borrow more was unsuccessful.
The county has a population of 16,000 people, and 3,000 of those are in the higher-risk category of the 60-and-olders, who might end up needing a ventilator if they become critically ill with the virus.
Gunnison County on Sunday had eight confirmed cases of the virus, but that number was expected to change quickly. The county’s first case of the virus was a woman who traveled to Crested Butte two weeks ago.
One of its next cases was a 50-year-old Crested Butte nurse practitioner who traveled to Hawaii in February and returned with the virus. It wasn’t diagnosed quickly and she unknowingly had many contacts with people before she became ill with pneumonia and was quarantined following a positive test.
MORE: A Crested Butte woman came home from Hawaii with sniffles. Then she found out it was coronavirus.
Sandstrom said taking exposures like that into consideration, the decision to target the over-60 crowd with bar and restaurant exclusions is an attempt to protect that vulnerable population – not discriminate against it — and to stretch the county’s meager resources should people in that age group become seriously ill.
He said the county is trying to avoid the spike of more than two dozen cases in Eagle County that have overwhelmed medical facilities there and put that county in a crisis.
“We are trying to be very aggressive,” Sandstrom said. “We are making hard decisions now so we don’t have to make even harder decisions later.”
While Gunnison grapples with its coronavirus problems, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Sunday said he would not rule out a national lockdown of all the restaurants and bars in the U.S.
In Massachusetts, restaurants are closed to all but take-out patrons and in California bars, nightclubs and wineries must close and restaurants must reduce their capacity by 50% to maintain a safe distance between customers. Hoboken, New Jersey, ordered residents to remain at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless they work outside the home during those hours. New York City on Sunday evening enacted a ban on all but to-go and take-out from restaurants and bars.
Sandstrom said Gunnison County’s situation is very fluid and more drastic measures may become necessary as the virus spreads.