By Lyndsie Ferrell
SOUTH FORK- In an effort to bolster local business support in the San Luis Valley, owner of Two Rivers BBQ in South Fork, Tyler Schmidt, invited several area business owners to his restaurant to discuss possible solutions to the current COVID-19 restrictions many businesses are facing today.
Schmidt went public with his plight in an interview that was published in Valley Publishing newspapers last week, which gave insight into some of the issues that restaurants and other businesses in the Valley are facing during the COVID pandemic. Schmidt stated that he was going to do whatever it takes to keep his doors open for the sake of his employees who depend on him for income.
The meeting was attended by just over 50 people, which included business owners, Rio Grande Hospital employees and members of the public who came to show support for their communities. Rio Grande County Commissioner Gene Glover and newly elected Rio Grande County Commissioner Scott Deacon were also in attendance to give an update on how the county is moving forward in regard to helping to keep local businesses open.
The evening began with an open discussion between those in attendance on how to negotiate with CDPHE and to ask that the department consider other regulations for rural communities like the Valley. “Tonight’s meeting is a chance for us to kick around ideas on how to move forward, prevent another closure and to possibly get back to at least 50% occupancy. I don’t know about anyone else, but 25% is not going to hack it for our business, especially going into winter and our slow time.”
Schmidt and other businesses owners from South Fork and surrounding areas all stated that another shutdown would mean the end of their business and the main consensus was that there had to be a way to convince CDPHE that a community with just over 300 full-time residents did not need to be treated the same as a front range community that has thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people in residence. “Because we do not have a dense population and the fact that our population is also spread out, it is a fact that our data that is determining our status on the state’s COVID dial is kind of skewed,” said Schmidt.
Commissioner Glover spoke to the attending crowd and discussed the mitigation plan the county is currently finalizing which highlights the needs of the businesses in the county and a plea to lessen restrictions in order to keep businesses open. “We originally negotiated a two-week deal with CDPHE to keep us in yellow on the COVID dial and the day after Thanksgiving, we were informed that the county had been moved to orange. We were notified at the same time as all of the businesses in the county. They did not give us a chance to respond and did not accept our first mitigation plan.”
Glover continued to state that numbers are in constant fluctuation, some accumulating after a testing event is held and others dropping off once their quarantine time has been completed. “I went around to businesses saying congratulations we can still be open, to turn around and have CDPHE notify the county of our shift to orange the same time everyone else was notified. We are working on the mitigation plan and hope to have it submitted soon.”
Glover also stated that the county is working with Mesa County, gathering information on a program that was implement there between four or five surrounding counties that is a tiered program and allows restaurants and other businesses that are in compliance with state regulations to open their doors to 50% capacity. Rio Grande County officials are looking to adopt a similar program in some way that would allow local businesses to operate under less restrictions. “We are doing what we can to push back against this.”
Attending business owners pointed out the need to educate the public on not being afraid of the COVID virus and to use their own personal judgement on how to handle the current situation. One business owner spoke up stating, “There is a couple here in South Fork that hasn’t left their home since March when this began. They are afraid and rightly so and that is their right, but they are not asking the community to come to a halt because they are worried about the virus. They are choosing to stay home and choosing to take care of themselves. That is the simple fact of being a free American. It is our right to choose what is best for us and we should be allowed to do so without being threatened with our livelihood.”
Several business owners in attendance also voiced concern on the fact that if CDPHE did come to the area to shut businesses down, they would lose their business licenses, liquor licenses and the right to operate in any capacity. Schmidt pointed out that restaurants in particular are already doing everything they can to sanitize and comply with regulations and had been doing that for years even before COVID. “We sanitize, wash hands, wash table, chairs and everything countless times throughout our days here at this restaurant; we had been doing that anyway. We should be able to open and comply. We just have to figure out a way to negotiate with CDHPE.”
It was further discussed and confirmed by Rio Grande Hospital employees in attendance that COVID patients that need to be hospitalized are not kept in the Valley but are transported out of the Valley to larger hospitals. Commissioner Glover confirmed this fact, stating that Rio Grande County Hospital is a clean hospital and does not care for COVID patients long-term. “The state is basing hospital bed numbers off statewide data. It does not include clean facilities like our hospital. It stands to reason this and other things should be taken into consideration before setting our regulations down here in rural areas.”
By the end of the meeting, business owners left with an idea of how to move forward while continuing to practice best practices and keep their doors open. Rio Grande County Commissioners are working diligently on the county’s mitigation plan which should be submitted to the state in upcoming days. Other members of the business community are looking for law representation that might be able to help businesses fight the COVID regulations battle and keep their doors open. “We are not grabbing our pitchforks and lighting our torches, we are wanting to negotiate in order to save our businesses and keep our employees employed. We have to stand together and fight this together or we won’t win.”