This is how quickly attitudes can change during a coronavirus pandemic. On March 14, when I heard that all Gunnison County bar and restaurants were closed to patrons sixty and over, I was outraged.
Today, when all of Gunnison County is closed to non-residents — particularly those pesky Texans with second homes there — I applaud.
In the month between, of course, Colorado has ordered all restaurants and bars closed to dine-in eating, allowing them to only offer to-go, drive-thru and delivery services. Other Colorado counties have added their own restrictions: Denver County, for example, has a longer closure date for restaurants (currently May 11), and a longer stay-at-home date (April 30) than Colorado's April 26 date for both. Clear Creek County closed its county roads to non-residents this past weekend; Park County was considering similar restrictions.
But no Colorado county has gone as far as Gunnison to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Gunnison County, which is home to Crested Butte, was an early hot spot in the state, cited by Governor Jared Polis just before he ordered all ski areas closed. Gunnison County has only 24 hospital beds, and not only did tourists bring COVID-19 along with their ski gear, but they suffered more lung problems from it at high altitudes.
So Gunnison County’s Fifth Amended Standing Health Order, issued on April 3, prohibits “all non-residents, including non-resident homeowners, from remaining in Gunnison County” for the duration of the order. Residents of Delta, Pitkin, Chaffee, Saguache, Hinsdale, Ouray, Montrose and Mesa counties may enter Gunnison County "to obtain essential goods and services not otherwise reasonably available to them by means other than by traveling to Gunnison County; or because of geography, have no choice other than to travel through Gunnison County to reach a destination outside of Gunnison County." But the county order notes, "They must depart Gunnison County as soon as reasonably possible by the fastest and safest available means."
And those with second homes in Gunnison County who want to head for the hills to wait out the pandemic? They are not welcome.
Even after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton complained that the policy was unconstitutional, Gunnison County held firm, backed by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.
But then, Gunnison County has been here before.
During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (which actually got its start on a military base in Kansas), the county cut itself off almost completely from the outside world. The capital of the county is Gunnison, and that town's response to a worldwide catastrophe over a century ago was so impressive that the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine researched it while working on a study for the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency a dozen years ago.
According to that Michigan study, "influenza arrived in Colorado on or about September 20, 1918, when 250 Montana soldiers arrived in Boulder for special training at Colorado University. Thirteen of the soldiers arrived seriously ill, and from them the disease spread quickly across the campus and the town. By the end of the first week 91 cases had developed. At the same time, a small detachment of 200 Montana soldiers arrived in Colorado Springs for training there; 25 of them were ill with influenza. From these two areas, according to the report, influenza spread across Colorado."
The first death was University of Denver student Blanche Kennedy, recently returned from Chicago. She died on September 27.
On October 7, 1918, Governor Julius Gunter issued an executive order calling on all health officers and members of the press to advise citizens of the danger of public gatherings, and to urge city and town officials to take appropriate action to halt the spread of the disease by closing public places. On October 16, Gunter proclaimed all public and private gatherings prohibited across the state.
Unlike most other western Colorado counties, the report notes, Gunnison, a boom-and-bust town of about 1,300 residents at the time, took a very early and active interest in stopping the spread of influenza. On October 8, immediately after Gunter's first warning, schools were closed across the county, and officials also implemented social-distancing measures, decreeing places in the county closed for at least four weeks. As news trickled in that other nearby areas had been hit hard, a strict protective sequestration was implemented across the entire county on October 1, and that remained in full force until February 4 in Gunnison, February 5 in the rest of the county.
Through it all, the railroad continued to come through Gunnison, but any passengers disembarking were required to enter a two-day quarantine period. Barricades were erected on the main highways near the county lines, and lanterns and signs warned drivers to continue through the county without stopping, or they and any passengers would be forced to submit to quarantine.
(Two Nebraska motorists en route to Delta a century ago were arrested and jailed when they tried to bypass a barricade and enter Gunnison County. Today, trespassers in Gunnison County face a fine of up to $5,000 and eighteen months in jail.)
Around the world, an estimated 50 million people died from the Spanish flu, 8,000 of them in Colorado. In Denver, where residents were slow to follow public-health orders, an estimated 1,500 people died; in Gunnison County, five. Four people there contracted flu-related pneumonia after the restrictions were lifted in February 1919.
The other death came earlier, at the height of the pandemic: Ellen Gavette died a few days after picking her sister up at the Gunnison train station. She'd brought the flu with her from another state.
Here's Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser's April 10 response to the Texas AG:
Gunnison County, like many Colorado mountain communities, faces a serious public health crisis because of COVID-19. Colorado law recognizes that, to protect their communities, local public health authorities are often best situated to make decisions and adopt and enforce public health orders based on their expertise and knowledge of local circumstances. Governor Polis’ stay-at-home executive order also specifically authorizes local government to adopt more stringent orders than the State.
Gunnison County’s order applies equally to Colorado and non-Colorado residents who own second homes or are visiting in the community and seeks to address the needs of the community to respond to this pandemic. Any suggestion that their order violates the U.S. Constitution is misguided.
To be sure, any order requiring people to travel from an area should be implemented equally to Coloradans and non-Coloradans and be managed in a sensitive and humane manner so as not to endanger any individuals residing in that community. In all events, however, local governments have the authority to adopt such an order based on their health needs under both Colorado law and the U.S. Constitution.
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