A year we won’t forget: How the Summit County community navigated 2020
In late December 2019, the world was anticipating the excitement and possibilities of a new decade.
A presidential election was approaching as people watched politicians vying for the Democratic Party nominee. The world was readying itself for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In Summit County, visitors flocked to local ski resorts to enjoy their winter vacations. No one was thinking about sourdough starters.
A year later, Summit County, along with the rest of the world, looks a lot different than it once did. People line up to enter grocery stores. Customers bundle up as they eat outside in below-zero temperatures. Seeing the lower half of a stranger’s face feels like an intrusion.
For some, the year has been devastating. People have lost their jobs. Business owners try to make ends meet with limited capacity and dwindling revenue. Parents worry about their children’s mental health as the Summit School District weaves between learning models. Over 2,000 Summit County residents have gotten the novel coronavirus. Four have died from it.
As the county moves into 2021 with no fireworks and limited fanfare, a lot remains unknown, but officials say there is much to look forward to.
A public health crisis 100 years in the making
Before 2020, Amy Wineland’s job as the county’s public health director was largely behind the scenes. She helped coordinate initiatives to prevent tobacco use, worked with her department to ensure local businesses were following protocols and successfully managed an outbreak of the mumps among Keystone Resort employees.
Now, she’s the face of the pandemic for Summit County. Wineland announced Colorado’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 5.
“To have the first case in Colorado here, I think it was kind of waking up to your worst nightmare,” she said. “You feel like you’ve done all this training and exercising, but you just can’t be prepared, you can’t be prepared for the enormity of that particular situation and what was to come.”
Only a few weeks later, the county went into a shutdown. On March 13, Summit School District and The Peak School both announced that classes would move online for at least three weeks. The schools didn’t go back in person for the rest of the semester.
The next day, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a mandatory closure of ski resorts across the state. And on March 16, Summit County issued its first public health order, closing all nonessential businesses.
“It was quickly realized how deadly this virus can be and the impact it can have on our health care system,” Wineland said. “Early on, when we were seeing the hospitalizations increase and knowing what the health care capacity was within the state, the north star from the shutdowns was really to prevent overwhelming the health care system with something we didn’t really understand.”
Wineland will be the first to acknowledge the shutdown order was “draconian.” However, it’s what helped Summit County have a successful summer, she said.
“When we did go into shutdown, we were able to suppress the spread of the virus, which allowed us to have … a summer that allowed us to get back to somewhat of a sense of normalcy,” she said.
A successful summer
From June through August, it seemed like the pandemic’s economic impact on Summit County might not be as bad as some feared.
On May 7, the county amended its public health order allowing businesses to open at 50% capacity and requiring that people wear face coverings in public.
After a winter of staying at home, visitors found themselves itching to go somewhere. No place was better than the mountains, with cool temperatures and plenty of outdoor recreation options.
Local governments got creative, creating the Frisco and Breckenridge Main Street promenades to promote outdoor dining. All four local ski areas were able to open for outdoor activities.
Businesses that had to close in March were able to make up some of their lost revenue over that time while the real estate industry saw its busiest summer on record.
“Everybody was feeling pretty good through the summer,” said Blair McGary, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce. “Never has the allure of outdoor spaces been more prevalent.”
Although the summer was successful, it didn’t save Summit County’s economy by any means. From March through August, Summit County businesses were down an estimated $464 million in revenue, McGary said.
Even when 2020 is a thing of the past, the world will be working to make up for the economic and behavioral health wreckage it left in its wake.
“I think this pandemic is really creating some steps backwards with … all of the unintended consequences we’ve realized,” Wineland said. “(We’ve seen) behavioral health needs, increase in suicides and overdoses, the economic insecurity, that people are facing struggles with food and housing. We’ve had an increase in child care abuse and neglect, increase in intimate partner violence.”
In Summit County, the local workforce has bared the brunt of these unintended consequences. The shutdown in March led nearly a quarter of the county’s workforce to leave the community by midsummer, creating staffing shortages at businesses across the county, McGary said.
“Our service industry was having trouble really staffing in the prepandemic,” she said. “Then we roll into the fall, and we started to see an uptick in numbers, and we started to see the writing on the wall of what was going to happen.”
After Labor Day, the county saw a spike in cases that led to a move into level red on the state’s COVID-19 dial. The move prohibited indoor dining for restaurants, limited gyms and fitness centers to 10% capacity and made it so no one could gather with others outside of their household.
“It was devastating to our business community, both to our businesses, our employers, and our employees,” McGary said. “For restaurants to go from 25% capacity to no indoor dining was really, really devastating.”
Those in the workforce who are still here face low wages, increased job insecurity and daily exposures to the general public. At the beginning of the pandemic, Summit County’s Hispanic population, many of whom work in essential jobs, was disproportionately affected by the virus.
In June, Hispanic people made up 61% of all cases in the county despite only consisting of around 14% of the total population. Since then, the percentage of cases has dropped to around 32%, and white people make up the majority of cases.
“This pandemic has really exacerbated health disparities,” Wineland said. “Certain segments of our population have been disproportionately affected. Those include folks living in crowded conditions, those in service jobs, front-line workers, who don’t have the luxury of working from home and working remotely.”
Hope for 2021
In a lot of ways, 2021 will be similar to 2020.
Masks aren’t going away any time soon, schools will still have online days, and businesses will have to comply with restrictions. However, there are signs of an end to the pandemic.
For one, the world finally has COVID-19 vaccines. The county announced Wednesday, Dec. 30, that it will be following the state’s guidance to vaccinate people ages 70 and older.
“I think this year is ending with an inharmonious climate right now,” Wineland said. “We have a moment of fatalism and fatigue as the virus continues to raise to new destructive heights, and yet we have celebration and hope as the vaccine begins to be put in people’s arms.”
The county is also looking forward to a move to level orange. Polis announced Wednesday evening that all counties in level red will be able to move to the less restrictive level orange Monday, Jan. 4.
Summit County has seen a steady drop in cases after going into level red. Since hitting a peak of 1,352 new cases per 100,000 people at the end of November, the number of new cases has declined to 706.8 per 100,000 people.
The success in slowing case numbers is the result of hard work by health care workers, the county’s public health team and the community as a whole, Wineland said.
If people continue to wear masks, avoid gatherings, get tested often and get a vaccine when it’s their turn, the county may see things look close to normal at the end of summer, she said.
“The virus is going to continue; it’s going to continue to be here until we get the majority of our population vaccinated,” she said. “That’s going to be several months from now, so we do need to continue to step up and protect each other.”
The Summit Daily News published two series in 2020 that took an in-depth look at the impact of the pandemic on different aspects of the county’s community.
Impact of the pandemic on Summit County’s Hispanic community:
• Part 1: ’The backbone of our workforce’: Summit County’s Hispanic community disproportionately susceptible to coronavirus
• Part 2: Many in Summit County’s Hispanic community have fallen through the pandemic safety net
• Part 3: With schools closed, immigrant communities struggle with access to technology and connection
Impact of the pandemic on Summit County’s workforce:
• Part 1: Making ends meet: How Summit County’s hourly wage workers patch together a tight budget
• Part 2: Housing crunch: Summit County’s workforce is increasingly being pushed out by second-home owners
• Part 3: Transient workforce: How high turnover affects the workplace and the mental health of hourly wage workers
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