Montezuma County Commission Rescinds Health Emergency Declaration After CDPHE’s Exemption Denial

May 14, 2020

The Montezuma County Commission unanimously voted to rescind the county’s local health disaster emergency declaration Thursday, one day after it shared the state health department’s rejection of a variance application. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s denial means the county is still under the regulations of the state’s safer-at-home order and will not move forward with plans like reopening dining rooms to 40% of capacity.

At its public meeting Thursday to respond to the decision, the commission made its disappointment and anger toward the state clear in a series of discussions and actions.

Health emergency declaration rescinded

The original emergency declaration, made on March 18, allowed for the “activation of local emergency response plans” and authorized the “furnishing of aid and assistance” by recognizing COVID-19 as a local health emergency. After a brief discussion, commissioners voted unanimously to retract it.

The commissioners’ main justification for rescinding the declaration was not seeing the impacts of the coronavirus on the low case count in the county. Commissioner Keenan Ertel said to his knowledge the hospital has never reached full capacity, and that it was scheduled to receive additional test kits this week. Ertel added that it was redundant for both the county and the state to have an emergency declaration.

He said Gov. Jared Polis is welcome to declare a statewide emergency but the county won’t be “complicit” in declaring one locally. Commission Chair Larry Don Suckla agreed.

“I’ve been all over this county, and there is not a health emergency,” Suckla said.

Outside of the case count, the commissioners repeatedly said the impacts of state restrictions were harming local businesses. During the conversation, Commissioner Jim Candelaria and County Attorney Jon Baxter both questioned how rescinding the emergency declaration would impact state and federal emergency funding. Baxter pointed to existing contracts with hotels to provide emergency space for patients, funding for which would likely be affected by the change in designation.

"It likely does put us at risk for losing the reimbursement monies," Baxter said.

Ertel countered by saying that the hotels weren’t in use and that they likely wouldn’t be before the end of the pandemic.

Candelaria also suggested asking Jim Spratlen, the county’s emergency manager, for more detail about the fiscal impacts of rescinding the declaration, but Suckla interrupted him.

"I don’t want to convolute this," he said. "I mean, he doesn’t even live here. We do, we know if there’s an emergency or not, and it’s just wasting time. We need to speed up. Our constituents are hurting. Let’s quit beating around the bush, let’s go for it."

Ertel supported him.

“From what I know going on in this county today, and the way our hospital is, and what’s going on with this supposed pandemic, we do not have a health disaster emergency in this county.”

Spratlen did not return a request for further information about fiscal impacts after the meeting Thursday, and other state, county, and City of Cortez officials did not immediately respond to KSJD’s inquiries.

Commission ‘cannot advise’ businesses

Because the CDPHE denied the county’s request for a variance from its the safer-at-home order Wednesday, the state’s regulations will still be in legal force until the department and the governor decide to further relax restrictions. However, how these regulations will continue to be enforced is not yet clear.

Ertel, just before abruptly hanging up on a video conference call with CDPHE officials Wednesday afternoon, said he “will not say anything” to local businesses that choose to open their doors.

The commission also unanimously approved a letter Thursday to county citizens to emphasize, in part, that orders to close businesses and venues only came from the state and not from the county.

“As we have re-opened County offices, we cannot advise local business on what they should do,” the letter reads. “All we can ask is that you continue to display common sense and make decisions that are in the best interests of your business and your customers.”

Baxter clarified in the meeting that while this is the county’s stance, it is not the only authority that can enforce the state’s orders.

“Just because the county chooses not to doesn’t mean that somebody is immune from prosecution,” Baxter said.

Karen Dickson, emergency preparedness and response coordinator for the Montezuma County Public Health Department, told KSJD in an interview Tuesday that the enforcement of state regulations in business is a complex matter. She declined to comment further Thursday, saying in a text message that MCPHD is awaiting word from CDPHE and others, and will provide a statement as soon as possible.

The letter did not address the county’s continued dispute over what the CDPHE has recorded as a third COVID-19 death. The Journal has reported the county coroner maintains his investigation determined the person, who had tested positive for COVID-19, had died from alcohol poisoning. The commissioners are supporting the coroner’s investigation and have already asked the state to update its data.

As of Thursday, the county’s COVID-19 tracker records two deaths while the state’s tracker shows three.

Suckla also suggested the county should pay for fines that businesses incur when violating public health orders if it feels the Montezuma County Public Health Department did not justify the fine. Suckla added that the total of fines paid by the county should be deducted from the health department’s budget when the commission reviews it this fall.

MCPHD director Bobbi Lock and media representatives for the CDPHE did not return requests for comment on the commissioner’s suggestion.

This article may be updated as KSJD receives additional comment from its inquires.