Tuesday, September 22, 2020

County reviews COVID planning and recovery process

A lot accomplished, a lot to address

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County is nearing the end of its first phase of planning and recovery response to COVID-19, and in the last three months the recovery team has implemented many new support structures countywide. They are now looking at what remains to be addressed within the community while preparing for the colder weather seasons ahead and the uncertainties surrounding major economic drivers such as the ski area and Western Colorado University reopening.

Gunnison County community and economic development director Cathie Pagano, who is also section chief for the recovery team, gave an update of the recovery process to county commissioners in a work session on Tuesday, July 28. Pagano was appointed to the recovery team in May by the county’s incident command.

Phase 1 laying groundwork

Pagano reviewed that the county is in the Phase 1 of the midterm planning and recovery process, representing May through August. The goal is to lay the groundwork for the future and all possible scenarios related to the coronavirus and economic fallout. This includes strategic planning, research and analysis and communications and engagement with the community at large.

The focal issue is: What do we need to do to continue to reopen—and maintain openings—for our economy and communities while minimizing the spread of COVID? Pagano said the team has looked at critical uncertainties, universal challenges and, ultimately, actions.

The recovery team has come up with five action areas: continue to engage business leaders; engage community to increase empathy and caring; monitor and support compliance efforts; understand and respond to the needs of vulnerable communities; and respond to community mental health issues and trauma.

Engaging business leaders has involved building a group of businesses to inform and contribute to local efforts. Now the group is developing a “business toolkit,” which includes signage, reopening guides, transition plans for different seasons and more.

Pagano noted, as did county commissioner Jonathan Houck, the disparity between some industries within the area. Houck said he wants the community to know that while some business sectors are doing very well during this strange time, others are struggling. “We are very aware of that and are addressing that,” he said.

Engaging community has involved creating a proposal for communications campaigns, which may include videos and other media forms, to propagate appropriate messages to locals and visitors that build empathy during a stressful period. It also means assembling a working group to develop training guidelines for frontline workers “who are really bearing the brunt of these confrontations and challenges,” around public health orders and restrictions, said Pagano.

Monitoring and supporting compliance efforts are under way, and CARES Act funding might be used for a coordinator in the future—but Pagano said the team has not found creating that new position necessary at this point.

In order to better understand the needs of vulnerable communities, the recovery team is conducting outreach such as monthly surveys to learn what has changed for these groups.

Last, the recovery team is convening a community health coalition with the related organizations and agencies to help navigate the darker, colder, possibly more restrictive months ahead. Pagano said things such as Vinotok and other seasonal events will look different. “But we are asking, ‘How can we continue to have events that bring our community together?’” she said.

Each of these “action items” has a different leader assigned to it so that there are a variety of entities from local government to businesses, non-profit organizations and members of the community involved and they don’t get lost in one larger job description.

Pagano said the next steps for the recovery team include implementing the various plans. The team also sent out a new round of business and community surveys on August 3 to facilitate further analysis. Surveys are being sent out quarterly.

Critical uncertainties

Pagano acknowledged the concerns many people face about how or if Western Colorado University, Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) and the Gunnison Valley School RE1J District will reopen.

“[These] are three very important entities whose opening make tremendous impacts on the community, and if any of them, particularly Western and CBMR, don’t open, there will be major downstream impacts to manage,” Pagano said. Her recovery team and Gunnison County public health director Joni Reynolds have a standing call with RE1J and CBMR once per week, she said.

New recovery coordinator, industry subgroups and STOR Corps

Other updates include the newly hired recovery coordinator, Loren Ahonen, who began working on July 27. Pagano said she is excited about what Ahonen will be able to take off her plate and move forward in the recovery process. She also noted that the new economic dashboard on the county website is getting regular updates, including those from all tax collections within the county.

All industry subgroups continue to meet on Tuesdays, and Pagano said attendance to them has grown to 30 to 50 attendees in the past several weeks. Discussions include a variety of things such as public health order enforcement; how to navigate the potential for changing public health order levels; effective ventilation; and virus containment strategies. Subgroups have different speakers each session to cover these topics and answer questions. “We appreciate people staying engaged,” she said.

The Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Corps hired 10 crewmembers (more than 30 people applied), and the crew began work two weeks ago. Some of the crewmembers are students at Western Colorado University and receiving school credits, thanks to Western faculty efforts. Crewmembers are doing outreach to the public on trails and campgrounds, weed management and “all kinds of things,” said Pagano. “We are excited to have them on the ground and running.”

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