In Summit County, Essential Businesses Can’t Sell You Non-Essential Stuff

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A taped off greeting card aisle in the Silverthorne Target, in March, 2020
Bente Birkeland/CPR News
A taped off greeting card aisle in the Silverthorne Target, in March, 2020

Step into the local Target in the Summit County resort town of Silverthorne and the shelves are stocked with all of the usual items: Groceries and beauty products, clothes and electronics. But not all of those things are actually for sale inside the store right now. 

Orange signs posted throughout the store warn that because of a local ordinance, Target is only allowed to sell products deemed “essential,” including food and medicine. Some sections, like greeting cards, are taped off entirely. 

“It's a little bit overwhelming, not knowing what you can and cannot do,” said Dillon resident Luann Ciacco. She went to the store about a week ago and was surprised at what she saw. 

Ciacco works for a local moving company and was trying to buy a printer to facilitate working from home. Under the new rule, she left empty-handed.

“It's one of those things, that it doesn't make sense,” she said. 

Bente Birkeland/CPR News
Under a local ordinance, stores like the Silverthorne Target have been instructed to prevent in-store sales of "non-essential' items, which the store interprets to include shoes.

Summit County acknowledges that determining what’s essential is subjective, and officials said they’re trying to work with businesses to answer questions and help them comply with the county order. But the goal is simple: to prevent the kind of crowds the Denver area has seen at stores like Home Depot and Lowes, and therefore hopefully slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Our philosophy on this is that we don't want to create an incentive for people to go out and shop,” said Julie Sutor, Summit County’s director of communications.” We don't want to create more of that social contact. We want to minimize that to the greatest extent possible.”

So far, no other county in Colorado appears to be regulating the sale of essential products this way but that doesn’t mean more won’t follow suit. The state of Vermont recently ordered big-box retailers to stop selling non-essential items in stores statewide. 

“This certainly is an unprecedented situation,” Sutor said. “We in Summit County have never been through this before, just like communities all over Colorado and the rest of the country. And so we are enacting regulations and restrictions that we feel are meeting the needs of our community.”

Summit County has the distinction of being where Colorado’s first known case of COVID-19 was identified, in a man in his 30s who skied at nearby Keystone Resort. Early in the outbreak, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis asked people from other parts of the state to stay out of the high country to prevent medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

He’s since reiterated that Coloradans should not treat his "stay at home" order like a vacation.

"The mountains, our trails, our beautiful rivers, they're going to be there," Polis said. "You can be active without having to drive anywhere."

Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie of Dillon said she believes restricting the sale of non-essential products is the right move.

“I commend the efforts of Summit County leadership and emergency response team leaders who are working around the clock to address the myriad of challenges facing the community,” she said.

However, for retailers charged with enforcing the regulations the situation can be confusing. 

“Our staff is put in a strange situation,” said Chris Howes, the president of the Colorado Retail Council, which represents large retailers like grocery chains, Target, Walmart. He said it’s not always easy for stores to decide what’s essential, and the whole idea can be inconsistent.  

“It's been a frustration that there might be a hammer in the hardware department [at Target] that they can't purchase, but they can go down to the road and purchase it at a hardware store. It's been challenging,” Howes said.

As for Ciacco, who left the Silverthorne Target without the printer she’d come for, she said she’d probably just buy one online or order it for curbside pickup. It’s just another sign of how much life has changed under the coronavirus. 

“It’s so quiet with all the tourists gone. And in the building that I live in, there's maybe four people that live there year-round and I'm one of them,” Ciacco said.  

She does support Colorado’s “stay at home” order and wants people to take efforts to curb coronavirus seriously, but she’s still trying to get used to her new normal.