Mesa County Had One Of The Most Open Economies In Colorado. Then The New Coronavirus Wave Hit

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Pine Gulch fire, one of the largest wildfires ever recorded in Colorado, is burning just over the nearby mesas on the edge of town, but life on Main Street in Grand Junction goes on.

Just last month, Mesa County had one of the most open economies in the state, with COVID-19 restrictions that allowed for gatherings of up to 500 people. 

Now, after large daily increases in coronavirus cases, public health officials there have scaled that way back.

In an announcement Thursday, Mesa County Public Health declared that indoor gatherings would now be capped at just 25 people, with outdoor gatherings maxing out at 75. The big change was at the direction of the state health department, MCPH officials said. 

Less than a week before, the county had already started to further restrict public life, forcing many bars to close and gyms to allow only 25 percent capacity. 

In a press release, MCPH Executive Director Jeff Kuhr called it “really concerning” that COVID-19 case numbers were moving so quickly in the wrong direction. 

‘'The last thing we want is to have to take a significant step backward in our reopening process,” he said.

Kuhr stressed it will take the entire community to help reverse that.

Part of returning to the state’s most open level on its COVID-19 dial (known as “Protect Your Neighbors” status) would mean Mesa County would need to have 75 or fewer cases every two weeks. Instead, as of Friday, it’s had nearly 600 cases during the previous two weeks. 

It’s an exponential increase for a county that just months ago often had daily cases in the single digits, and even went for several weeks without any cases during the spring. 

But while local cases have been soaring, hospitalizations haven’t. Dr. Andrew Jones is the chief medical officer for Grand Junction’s St. Mary’s Medical Center, the largest hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City. He explained that even though the hospital takes in people from across the region, it’s “not anywhere near” its capacity for COVID-19 patients.

“We do have hospital beds available, and we have surge plans in place that will allow us to grow capacity if needed to ensure we can provide safe care to as many patients as possible,” Jones said.

But even while things look good from a hospitalization standpoint, he asked for caution from Mesa County residents, especially when it comes to the recommended safety practices that have been repeated by medical professionals for months: Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands. 

Jones urged people “to not treat this public health issue as a political issue.”

“This is a virus. It has nothing to do with who you’re voting for or what your political beliefs are,” he said. “There’s some science we need to take heed of here, and I think we’d be better off if we can do that.”

The warning is also turning dire for neighboring communities. On Friday, Pitkin County announced it is limiting personal gatherings to five people from no more than two families. The Pitkin County Board of Health said this is in response to a large number of recent cases, which puts the county on the verge of tipping back into tighter restrictions for businesses. Currently, they can have 50 percent capacity, but that could drop to 25 percent if the high rate of cases persists.