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Courts continue to weather COVID-19 impacts

Chief Judge Mark Thompson wears a mask in the courtroom during a hearing at the Summit County Justice Center in Breckenridge on April 28.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

BRECKENRIDGE — The pandemic has continued to impact local courts over recent months as judges, attorneys and others adjust to the ever-changing criminal justice landscape in the face of COVID-19.

The Summit County Justice Center has kept its doors open since the arrival of the novel coronavirus in early March, but the pandemic has stressed court systems around the state dealing with trial backlogs and staffing shortages. For local officials, there’s been a concerted effort to keep the dockets lean and to prepare for the eventual opening of the floodgates.

“We have a long backlog of trials, and we started to whittle away at that during a brief six-week period where we could do them,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “For now, our courts in the Fifth are doing a good job, and managing some of these cases through virtual appearances has been a game changer for us. It’s enabled people to answer to the requirements of the court and at the same time stay healthy. … But at some point, we’re going to have to pay the piper and have people coming in for jury calls on a frequent basis.”

In April, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Coats issued an order suspending all jury trials throughout the state. Courts in the Fifth Judicial District — Summit, Lake, Eagle and Clear Creek counties — launched back into trials as soon as the order expired Aug. 2. But the return to action was short lived.

Earlier this month, Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson issued another moratorium, pushing all jury trials until at least Jan. 19.

With the absence of jury trials, Thompson said court officials have been able to prioritize things like civil disputes, child welfare cases and other hearings to move through the process virtually. But criminal cases have presented officials with considerable challenges.

There are about 35 cases awaiting jury trials throughout the district, about three times as many as officials would typically see on the docket at any given time. Brown noted that his office has had to change policies to help get cases adjudicated before trial to keep from overwhelming the courts.

“We’re trying to avoid a backlog accumulating that we cannot get out of,” Brown said. “It’s a situation where realistically some moderately serious cases, where in the past we might have insisted on a term of imprisonment, probation has been on the table. We try not to sacrifice public safety, so that isn’t happening on any serious cases. But on moderate cases it has and will continue to.”

Officials around the district already are planning for the reintegration of jury trials into their schedules in late January, but questions remain about what will happen if the pandemic hasn’t improved or if the state returns to a stay-at-home order. Any further delays could create substantive negative impacts for individuals waiting for their day in court, in particular for individuals currently incarcerated.

Virtual jury trials remain a possibility, albeit an imperfect one. Thompson, who sits on a pair of judicial technology and virtual proceedings committees for the state, said nobody in Colorado has attempted a virtual jury trial. Civil cases have worked well over the court’s streaming system, but jury trials create additional obstacles like ensuring a panel of jurors that’s reflective of the community despite existing technology gaps in the area.

Thompson said before any online jury trials move forward, officials also would have to work out solutions to a number of in-court problems, like making sure there’s an accurate record and that evidence can be entered virtually and efficiently.

While not necessarily a legal issue, Thompson said that taking away the in-person element of jury trials also could fundamentally change the proceedings from an emotional perspective, which often plays a role in how judges hand down sentences and how attorneys approach addressing jurors or witnesses.

“If you’re a lawyer, you’re looking at that panel of folks and gauging the impact of your statements and questions on people’s facial expressions and body language,” Thompson said. “Interviewing people on camera doesn’t convey as much information. … Can you adequately cross-examine a witness who has a mask on? Would it matter from a legal perspective if the victim in a case were testifying in person close to the defendant versus by video? Is that meaningful? Those are questions that don’t necessarily have clear answers in the law, and there are practical limitations to some of these things.”

Thompson said he and other judicial workers around the state are still exploring the use of a virtual jury concept to see if it’s feasible sometime down the line.

As officials prepare for the return of jury trials, there also are concerns about how the district’s court staff will be able to handle the increased load. Budget cuts have created staffing shortages statewide, including in Summit County, where Thompson said one individual has been laid off and two vacant positions have been eliminated.

The cuts will help the court to maintain its essential services, but it also will likely mean longer wait times for some cases to be resolved or for some phone calls to be returned.

“It’s been a combination of creative solutions to try and preserve positions that are absolutely critical to maintain our operations,” Thompson said. “We looked carefully at positions we could eliminate or leave unfilled, knowing it’s going to push work to other people and create its own set of problems. It’s put a lot of pressure on our staff, but you’ve got to figure out a way to tighten your belt. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”


Copper Mountain is final Summit County resort to open for the season


A skier enjoys opening day at Copper Mountain Resort on Monday, Nov. 30.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — Copper Mountain Resort opened on a chilly, bluebird Monday with 13 trails, seven lifts and noticeably fewer attendees than in previous years.

The late start was by design. Copper pushed back its start date to Nov. 30, the final opening day of Summit County’s four ski areas, to allow for more open terrain and therefore more space between people.

While the terrain was fairly consistent with what would be expected for early season skiing, opening day attendees were pleased to find that the snow wasn’t too icy and that there were a good amount of runs open — plus 25 Woodward Copper terrain park features.

Opening on a Monday helped prevent crowds and give staff time to work through any kinks before the weekend arrives, Copper spokesperson Taylor Prather said.

“Obviously, opening on a Monday, opening a little bit later, it’s not the typical fanfare that we’re used to, but we’re just fortunate to be able to open,” Prather said. “We think that skiing and snowboarding is such an important part of our mental and physical well-being, especially for the community that lives up here at Copper, and so to be able to open that up, we’re just really proud, and we’re really excited to be able to offer that.”

It’s been 261 days since Copper was last open, so the stoke for the season is high, Prather said.

Adam and Cami Main, a couple up from Denver for the day, wanted to start the season off right by coming to opening day for the first time.

“This is my first opening day,” Adam Main said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought there would be more rocks and trees and ice, so I’ve been impressed with the quality of snow.”

The couple skied about eight days last season before its abrupt end in March. This year, the Mains are determined to get more runs in.

Adam Main said the couple paid for a parking spot this year, making it convenient to walk to the chairlift and allowed them to avoid taking the shuttle, which they’re wary of using during the pandemic.


Skiers and riders wait in line for a chairlift on opening day Monday, Nov. 30, at Copper Mountain Resort.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Johnny Lee took the day off work to take his son, Nathanal Lee, and friend Jake Malliton up to Copper.

Compared with a previous opening day he spent at Copper, Johnny Lee said this year had less traffic along Interstate 70 from Denver and shorter lift lines. He said he is grappling with how to plan for ski days this year because he usually goes skiing without much planning.

“We’ve always been a little bit last minute, where we’ll do more condition-based planning more than we pick weekends super in advance, so that’s a little bit of a worry,” Lee said. … “So I don’t know if we’ll ski more or less. Some of it’s going to depend on how available the rolling weekly parking passes (are).”

Malliton, who is not concerned the resort will shut down at any point, said he is worried how difficult it might be to get a parking reservation on big powder days.

Skiers ride the lift on opening day Monday, Nov. 30, at Copper Mountain Resort.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

A group of high school students — Liam Dawson, Aedyn Simon and Sully Brunett — said they don’t have school on Mondays during remote learning and plan to ski as much as possible on their days off this year. The trio said they’ve been cooped up in the house and that they are excited about their newfound freedom this winter now that they’ve received their driver’s licenses.

Carrie Snodgrass and Eileen Cullen also traveled to the resort from Denver. They were able to make it on a Monday due to their flexible schedules as a nurse and student. It was the duo’s first opening day experience, and they were interested to see how the mountain would operate under COVID-19 restrictions. Cullen said she hopes to ski as much as she would in a normal year.

“It’s a good way to get outside when there’s not much else to do,” Snodgrass said. “It seems like one of the safer activities to do COVID-wise because you’re pretty distanced and masked up and outside. It seems like a safer option than other things.”

Torstein Horgmo, a Silverthorne resident and pro snowboarder, said coming to opening day is special this year, and he’s thankful to be able to keep riding with friends. He said skiing and snowboarding is important because people shouldn’t forget how to enjoy themselves despite the pandemic.

“You never know — dealing with the virus, this epidemic all through the summer — how it’s going to actually affect riding and going outside and having fun with your friends on the mountain,” Horgmo said. “But so far, so good. It looks like it’s happening.”


Colorado Democrats unveil details of their coronavirus relief plans for the special legislative session


DENVER — Statehouse Democrats on Sunday unveiled eight coronavirus relief bills they will prioritize during Colorado’s special legislative session, which begins Monday and will run at least three days.

The legislation, much of it bipartisan, includes direct payments to small businesses, tax forgiveness, grants for child care centers and money to expand broadband access.

The aid, which is constrained by the state’s budget, totals about $200 million and is aimed at providing a bridge until a much larger congressional stimulus measure is approved. Lawmakers concede that the money isn’t a silver bullet, and business leaders say it’s unlikely to revive businesses that are at the edge of demise.

There is an additional $100 million in spending related to Colorado’s public health response.

Republicans are expected to introduce measures of their own during the extraordinary lawmaking term, though they are in the minority at the Capitol and thus would need significant support from Democrats to pass anything. It’s also possible other Democratic pieces of legislation could be introduced.

Take a look at the details of the policy in the eight priority bills at ColoradoSun.com.

Letter to the editor: Awaken and raise your Love Quotient

Recently, I wrote a letter wondering why educated people would vote for Donald Trump. A guy answered my letter not refuting the complaints, but explaining how educated he is and saying he is for Trump. What to do?

  • It’s not about IQ, education level, bank account or ancestors; it is about heart or “consciousness.” (How close we are to our creator, or the amount of love we have for our Earth, our brothers and sisters, our country and God?)
  • Vibrations of love hitting Earth are raising the vibrations of light, and they are increasing daily.
  • Those who live in darkness, i.e. the ego, will not be able to handle the high vibrations and will depart Earth.
  • Trump’s LQ is the level of a squid. (I call our consciousness level LQ, short for Love Quotient, which is quite different from IQ. For instance, the former is easy to change, and you can have a high IQ, but a low LQ. Please have nothing to do with people below LQ 200 on Dr. David Hawkins’ Map or Scale of Consciousness. A score of 200 is the demarcation point between darkness and light. See his book “Power vs Force.” Those in darkness have almost no love for anything but themselves.)

Incidentally, anyone above LQ 400 can use kinesiology to determine truth from falsehood and the level of consciousness of any person, place, thing or thought in seconds.

As we rise in consciousness, we become:

  • More aware
  • Mentally sharp
  • Physically healthy
  • More prosperous
  • Morally awake
  • More joyful
  • More thankful
  • More in tune with our creator, guides, guardian angels

A new era is dawning. For the first time in Earth’s history, light has conquered darkness. Give aid to this dawning by awakening and raising your Love Quotient.

Letter to the editor: McGahey’s get-to-work math needs checking

Kim, your math skills in your column would probably get you an “F” in sixth grade math. As of Wednesday, Nov. 25, approximately 12.7 million people are infected with the virus and 260,000 are dead in the U.S. According to your world of math that is 0.2% fatalities; in my world of math that is 2 per 100 fatalities or 2%. Do the math! If 10% of the US population (360,000) were to get inflected — God forbid — that works out to 720,000 dead.

As far as getting back to work, I’m sure the ICU workers across the nation would happily take time off from the conditions they are currently working under.

I suggest you go to a decaffeinated beverage, it has all the taste you need without the obvious side effect.

Letter to the editor: McGahey’s column is contrary to rational health policy

I find the Tuesday, Nov. 24 opinion column in the Summit Daily News by Kim McGahey to be absurd and contrary to rational and informed public health policy.

He is of course entitled to his opinion, as is the Summit Daily to decide if it will print his philosophy. The ones not entitled to a choice are the health care professionals he identifies as having alphabet soup after their name. If he shows up sick, they have no choice and must, and will, treat him with the best they have. They will also treat everybody else who shows up because he infected them due to his ignorance.

I find his position to be blatantly anti-Summit and a clear explanation of why he lost his recent election to the state Legislature by a 60% to 40% margin.

Letter to the editor: Election results are something to celebrate this Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! As I tell anyone who will listen, it is a joy living here. Yes, four decades of powder stashes have fallen prey to an abundance of powderhounds, but there is still the backcountry.

I was reminded by history professor Heather Cox Richardson that Thanksgiving was created after two hard years of the Civil War. It was not the message I got in the fourth grade, but then again, that fourth grade was in the South of the 1950s. During that war, President Abraham Lincoln set Aug. 6, 1863, as a national day of thanksgiving. This followed proclamations of thanksgiving by Northern governors on the November and December of the previous year to remind their citizens that a war was being fought to protect the rights of all citizens to enjoy benefits established by the United States Constitution.

Professor Richardson states on her essay, which is available on Facebook and her free subscription newsletter, that “Northerners elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency to stop the rich Southern slaveholders from taking over the government and using it to cement their own wealth and power.”

In the mid 1800s before the war, the Northern states contained the larger population of citizens and the Southern states contained most of the nation’s wealth in the form of cotton plantations. When Lincoln was elected to bring the Southern states, and their oversized senate influence into line, those states withdrew from the Union.

On this Thanksgiving we again have witnessed a larger number of voters who wish to move our nation away from autocracy — from fascism. My having had a front row seat to the height and demise of Jim Crow makes our recent presidential election a reason to celebrate. Happy Thanksgiving.

Opinion | Kim McGahey: Summit County’s social warrior agenda

Summit County towns have embarked on a social warrior campaign with their Black Lives Matter murals on Main streets, and now they’ve added threatening banners that proclaim “Love This Place? Cover Your Face!”

The towns are pounding nails in their coffin in a self-proclaimed socialist effort to make political statements, when really most visitors and locals just want to get away from the real world and go skiing in our beautiful mountains. If the county was really concerned with its economic longevity and not its social warrior agenda, it would have banners across Main Street that say, “Love This Place? Ski This Place!”

The towns are a little too fat and happy shoving socialism down the throats of locals and visitors. The town councils think they have the right to impose their liberal narrative on the taxpayers and the guests that come here from around the country. They want everyone to fall in line with Black Lives Matter, mandatory mask zones, police departments that threaten noncompliance with punitive consequences and encouragement of Blueshirts to squeal on their neighbors and family members.

This radical agenda feels like Boulder, Austin and Madison, where individual First Amendment civil liberties are sacrificed on the altar of social justice.

Their tacit endorsement of Black Lives Matter misses the difference between the message and the mission. The message, which nobody opposes, is that Black men should not be shot by white police because of the color of their skin. This message is statistically unsubstantiated as more white men are killed by white cops and more Black men are killed by other Black men.

The Black Lives Matter mission is far more dangerous and is why the local towns should remove their murals. The Marxist mission is to replace American capitalism with communism, eliminate the nuclear family that is the basis of our democratic republic and impose government control over the means of American free-enterprise production. This mission rightly offends locals and visitors who believe freedom, not slavery, should define America’s history and character.

Another misguided policy embraced by the town councils is government-imposed mask hysteria. This mind control is the height of coronaphobia. Health bureaucrats and politicians have assigned mask mandates a gravity unsupported by empirical research, as evidenced by the recent 6,000-person Danish study that could not confirm mask deterrent of droplet transmission.

The politicians know that actual mask results are less important than making people feel good about themselves and giving them self-perceived moral high ground to demonize others who don’t abide by their muscle. Masks have the unintended consequence of allowing tyrants to govern by fear.

Business owners and individuals should decide for themselves to let their own personal goodwill and community concern make that mask determination. It should not be an encroachment of our individual First Amendment rights resulting from an arbitrary government mandate. The banner over Main Street should be, “You Ask About the Mask.”

Instead, Summit County and the ski areas would be wise to promote our wonderful mountain community as a cool ski resort that is one of the few remaining places in the world that is safe, pretty and clean. We are the best place in America to get away from all the authoritarian regulations of Orwellian governments plaguing the rest of the world these days. People are craving a fun refuge rather than more social refuse.

Summit County is the last, best hope for sanity in an insane world. We need to let the country know we are the safe place for a family trip, not just another social guilt trip.

Let’s support our resourceful, local business owners and their employees who are champing at the bit to get back to work, especially the undeservedly hard-hit restaurants and bars. Demand from our draconian leaders that we be open for business; take off the governor and get that economic engine revving again.

Kim McGahey’s column “Conservative Common Sense” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. McGahey is a real estate broker, tea party activist and Republican candidate. He has lived in Breckenridge since 1978. Contact him at kimmcgahey@gmail.com.


Letter to the editor: 24-72 hour delays not enforced for short-term rentals

Thanks for publishing some really great letters in the Wednesday, Nov. 25, edition of the paper.

I too have noticed short-term rentals being booked back to back without following the rules requiring 24-72 hours between rentals as posted by the county health guidelines.

Although the county cannot police who actually rents with an unallowed number of people and/or determine if they’re unrelated, the county could make time between rentals mandatory. This would help curb the spread of COVID-19 by giving the cleaners of the properties enough time to air out and clean properly, to help ensure that the rental property — or hotel room — is actually safe to stay in.

Simple things to save lives and get our local, and national economy, back to normal.

Vail Resorts’ cancellation of cloud seeding this winter could mean less water in streams

Colorado water managers and ski resorts use cloud seeding generators like this one to disperse silver iodide particles into clouds, where ice crystals form on them and fall to the ground as snow. State officials are trying to find replacement funding after Vail Resorts canceled its cloud seeding program this year.
Photo from Western Weather Consultants

ASPEN — Due to budget shortfalls, Vail Resorts has pulled this winter’s funding for its cloud seeding program — the longest-running in the state at 44 years — potentially reducing the amount of water flowing down the Colorado River this spring.

According to a November report from Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell, due to economic challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Vail Resorts was forced to suspend all funding for cloud seeding for the 2020-21 season. This has resulted in a $300,000 loss of funding for cloud seeding activities over the central Rocky Mountains.

While this could be bad news for skiers, it also means a challenge for Western water managers who use cloud seeding to increase water supplies by increasing snowfall in the mountainous headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries. While ski resorts tend to focus their cloud seeding on increasing early-season snow, water managers tend to choose the best storms throughout the season and boost those.

According to Mitchell’s report, the loss of Vail’s cloud seeding program severely reduces the ability to augment and increase water supplies.

“This recent decision has put managers of the (Central Colorado Mountain River Basin Program) in a very difficult position as they endeavor to meet the needs of drought recovery,” Mitchell’s report reads.

Vail Resorts did not respond to requests for comment.

The weather modification program is one of six in Colorado. This program is run by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and covers Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties. Vail Resorts’ program is separate from the central Colorado program, but it is within the permit area and focuses on Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts.

‘A significant loss’

Cloud seeding uses a network of ground-based generators throughout the permit area to disperse silver iodide particles into clouds, where ice crystals form on them and fall to the ground as snow. Colorado ski areas and water managers on the Western Slope and Front Range have been using cloud seeding for decades to enhance snowpack and streamflows. The cloud seed generators in the central Colorado area are operated by Durango-based Western Weather Consultants.

Water managers see cloud seeding as an important tool for increasing water supply in times of drought. A study released earlier this year proved that cloud seeding can boost snowfall across a wide area under the right conditions. Weather modification programs were one of the elements included in the Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the Colorado River basin states in 2018.

“It’s one of the few ways to physically increase water supplies,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “This is one of the legs of the stool. When we are looking at supply and demand, this is the supply side.”

Colorado water managers and ski resorts use remote cloud seeding generators like this one to boost a storm’s snowfall. This year, Vail Resorts cut its $300,000 program, leaving some water managers worried it could result in decreased snowpack and streamflows.
Photo from Western Weather Consultants

Kanzer said a statistical comparison over 15 years shows a 2% to 5% annual increase in snowfall in basins that use cloud seeding over those that don’t. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact amount of extra snow that cloud seeding generates, it could equal up to 80,000 acre-feet of water within the central Colorado permit area, Kanzer said.

Since Vail’s program represents about half of this, one could expect any snow and water generated to also decrease by half this year.

“We have lost about half of our effectiveness,” Kanzer said. “It’s a significant loss to cloud seeding within our permit area.”

The central Colorado program has an annual budget of about $220,000 to $250,000, Kanzer said, with contributions from the River District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Front Range Water Council and districts in the lower basin that supply water.

Colorado Water Conservation Board officials say they are still trying to find replacement funding and have been talking with Front Range water providers, including Denver Water. Spokesperson Todd Hartman said Denver Water currently provides $12,400 as part of the Front Range Water Council’s $70,000 contribution.

Cloud seeding uses ground-based generators to disperse dust-sized silver iodide particles into clouds so that ice crystals can form on those particles and fall to the ground in the form of snow.
Photo by Joshua Aikins

“The (Front Range Water Council) and Denver Water are aware of the reduction from Vail, and members are discussing how and whether to address that,” Hartman wrote in an email.

Three water providers in the lower basin states — Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — contributed $438,000 this year to cloud seeding programs across the upper basin, which also includes Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Colorado Water Conservation Board Weather Modification Program Manager Andrew Rickert said it’s still too early in the season to know how Vail’s move might affect snowpack and streamflows.

“We just have no idea what kind of season we could have in front of us,” Rickert said. “We could have storms that are efficient enough not to need cloud seeding. It’s really just up in the air as to how this is going to affect water supplies for next year.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.