KPCW's Leslie Thatcher interviewed Summit County Manager Tom Fisher and Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough Saturday night about the developments surrounding the COVID-19 situation. Topics covered include the new case of COVID-19 in Summit County that health officials call the first case of "community spread" in Utah, the closing of Park City's two ski resorts, and an upcoming order for all Summit County restaurants to prohibit inside dining and allow curbside pickup only.
Leslie Thatcher : Good evening, I’m Leslie Thatcher, KPCW News Director. It has been a day unlike any other in Park City and Summit County today due to the news of the first case of the coronavirus contracted due to what is called community spread. Since then Utah, Summit County and Park City officials have been working tirelessly to plan a course of action.
On the phone with me now is Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough.
As I mentioned a big day, all starting with the first confirmed case of the coronavirus, considered to be community spread and it feels like it just escalated from there. First Vail Resorts then Alterra Mountain Company, then Bill White Restaurants telling KPCW he’s closing all his restaurants and now word that all restaurants will close starting tomorrow night. Can you walk us through this.
Dr. Rich Bullough: Yes. First of all let me share you’re completely accurate in saying that once we have community spread of the COVID-19 virus, everything changes and our approach becomes, for lack of a better word, a little bit more aggressive because we know it is spreading in our community. So the objective of everything we’ve done, I want to point out, we’re not going to stop the spread of the virus but our intent is to slow it. The reason for that is twofold: obviously there are preventative measures, prophylactic measures, vaccines, antivirals in process of being developed. That’s anywhere from six months to a year out and so we’re hoping to reduce the number of individuals being infected while those products are being developed. Perhaps more importantly we’re hoping to slow the spread of the disease so we can mitigate any surge on our medical facilities, any over-running of the medical facilities and the capacity to provide the treatment that is needed. So everything we are doing is focused on that. And if you look at the data with respect to positive cases in the state of Utah, the majority of those cases are in our little tiny county of Summit County. We got 40,000 people in a state of roughly 3 million and yet here we are. Those data lead us to be very certain in the fact that these transmissions and now the community spread is to some extent at least due to tourism, travel, attractions that bring people here. So while we fully understand the impact on business and we take that very seriously, we have had to take these actions to in essence mitigate and diminish the number of people gathering, the locations where they gather and ultimately reduce the spread. And that’s what has brought us here.
LT: Let’s start with the first news, Park City Mountain, Vail Resort saying they will close all North American resorts for a week until they assess the situation. Alterra Mountain Company and those on the Ikon pass saying closed until further notice. What would need to change in order for people to ski through April 12th? Through Easter?
RB: I’ll just be forthright. I don’t see anything on the horizon that would allow that. The actions that we’ve taken, we absolutely, and first of all I want to be clear, they closed on their own. That’s very important to point out. These companies despite potential financial impact and risk have done the right thing for our community .That needs to be highlighted. Very very important. They’ve been great partners in this. But the relatively short term, in the case of Vail, their short term closure, we anticipate, will not be reversed. We don’t see conditions changing quickly. The orders we are ready to issue, The enforcement orders are for a duration of 30 days. But we will be reviewing those and reviewing conditions on an ongoing basis.
LT: So, let’s talk.. I guess, how do we know the impacts to the community isn’t greater than we already know now if we haven’t been testing everybody?
RB: Very good question. I think we’re naive to think it isn’t greater. There’s every reason to believe there are more cases in our community than we have identified. And when I’m talking about community that’s true in the state and our nation. There are absolutely more cases we suspect and believe that community spread is much more prevalent than what we are able to report. Yesterday when the governor held his press conference about closing schools, the medical expert that was part of the press conference said exactly that. He said we haven’t detected community spread yet, but it’s here. I think that’s completely accurate. It’s more prevalent than we believe.
LT: So this morning at 10 o’clock you did a live press conference at the Utah Department of Health then went into a closed Summit County Council meeting at noon. After that meeting or perhaps as a result of that meeting that’s when we started hearing about the resort closures. Can you discuss, since it’s a closed meeting it’s protected, but can you discuss what was discussed at that meeting, or at least the highlights of that and what you were looking for?
RB: Leslie, as you know I have the county manager Tom Fisher in the office and he’ll address that.
Tom Fisher, Summit County Manager: I want to protect the council’s closed session. That’s a good point. We consulted with.. I can say the council was very deliberate in working with Rich, the health department and several local advisors in trying to sort through what the current situation was, what possible impacts there would be, and then using all that information in order to help advise Rich on where to go with his determination. Of course both of us have powers under these emergency declarations. The ones we are talking about now are under Rich’s jurisdiction.
LT: Can you tell me who was in that meeting? It was you,the council, the health authorities, were the restaurant and resort officials there as well?
TF We had advisors from all the areas we’re discussing: lodging, restaurants, resorts, local business representatives.
LT: Can you give me the nature of the conversation? Was everyone on board? Saying this is our community and we need to protect it?
TF: I will take that out of the realm of the closed session and just give you my impression. I am absolutely amazed and thankful for the support that our local businesses in all realms have been in discussing this item, helping us understand the breadth of the issue, from a lot of different perspectives and the actions that have been taken. It’s remarkable.
LT: Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happening now with the restaurants.
RB: First of all the restaurants were part of the conversations. It is accurate to say tomorrow we will be drafting and issuing some enforcement orders. We think we’ve come up with a reasonable compromise, again restaurants were part of this discussion. In essence we will allow takeout and delivery of meals. But we are not going to allow indoor dining where people gather. This enforcement will apply to restaurants in general, but also restaurants and hotels, and obviously it’s going to apply to bars as well.
LT: Just as an example here, we have a number of restaurants and bars that back up to the Swede Alley area. How would that work? The food is prepared in the kitchen, a food handler, which restaurant servers are required to be, would walk it out to a waiting car?
RB: That’s one option. It’s real clear to point out, we’re going to leave these plans to the restaurants. There’s going to be a whole continuum on how they’re going to approach this. Obviously some place like Taco Bell, their business is relatively not affected. It’s a typical drive through restaurant. Others may choose to do boxed lunches, packaged meals, deliver them to the sidewalk. That’s up to the restaurant. What doesn’t change, though, are the requirements for food preparation and handling. We’re still going to be enforcing that in fact we’re going to bring up additional environmental health scientists from surrounding counties and our hope is that there can be still some business maintained and still protect the public health. One of the concerns in the meeting today was that people need to eat and the business partners that were part of the conversations stressed that for a lot people the grocery stores are not their only option or perhaps not even their best option. So we need to assure we don’t establish a shortfall of resources available to the community with respect to serving meals. I want to point out there won’t be delivery services like UberEats. Those services will be curtailed at the time we issue this order.
LT: We expect to have this order tomorrow?
RB: Our hope is by five o’clock.
LT: So we shouldn’t expect local restaurants to open for dinner tomorrow.
RB: That’s correct.
LT: How do they ensure that the kitchens or employees aren’t viral? We don’t know how active the virus stays on a countertop. We’ve heard everything from one to nine days.
RB: That’s a really good question. We’re issuing protocols for cleaning the kitchen. We’re asking businesses to do a thorough cleaning to meet standards and assure the virus isn’t living on surfaces. Also we are actively monitoring, obviously we got information in the public out about monitoring symptoms and what to do when you identify symptoms. And also information right now we know the active cases that have actually been diagnosed in Summit County, we know the contacts and we generally know what kind of risk there is with respect to coworkers. So the answer to that is our ability to regulate and completely control the virus is not complete. But we’ve done a pretty good job of prioritizing and in essence triaging, identifying our greatest risk and building regulations and protections around that risk so that with the resources we’ve got we have the greatest impact possible.
LT: So how are you going to get that information out to all the establishments and make sure that they’ve seen it?
RB: There will be a press release, we’ll also be releasing the ordinance distributing it through the Restaurant Association. It’s important to note that there was a call with them today. I didn’t attend the call but my understanding is it was productive and positive. They’re on board. So this shouldn’t be, one of the reasons you’re calling is this is already public. I don’t think this is going to catch our restaurant owners by surprise.
LT: We’ve talked about restaurant restrictions. Are we taking steps towards any other businesses? Retail establishments, grocery stores, what about the liquor stores?
RB: The answer right now is no. But as I said we prioritized where we think we have the greatest impact & the conversations and the analyses of risk are ongoing. So right now we did just finish a conversation about stores. At this point in time we’re anticipating we will continue that discussion. We understand to some extent people need opportunities to shop. You mentioned grocery stores, people need to buy food. ANd so much of this is about signage, sanitation and the old message we’ve been talking about for three weeks and that’s social distancing. As we walk up and down Main Street and look at stores for example the density of gathering isn’t so great in the stores. So right now we’re looking at it and having conversations with Main Street Business Alliance and others to enter any decisions we make in partnership with them.
LT: Another job is postal workers, is mail delivery not impacted by this at all?
RB: My understanding is, this is only word of mouth, the postal service has instituted a cleaning protocol. It’s similar to what they’ve done with other instances like Anthrax. They’re cleaning and screening. I’ve heard that from several sources.
LT: Lots of people were scared about the news today regarding the employee at The Spur. IF anyone has visited that restaurant since March 6th, what do they need to do?
RB: They need to monitor their symptoms. If they develop headaches, fevers, chills, a dry cough, they need to access the call in services, the statewide lines. My understanding is they’re fairly busy now. Those lines have 3 queues. And you make choices: are you a provider, do you have symptoms, or do you need information. If you enter the line that says you have symptoms it sends you down a pathway where you will be evaluated if the risk is there. So that’s what we’re recommending people do.
Let me explain a little bit about how this system works. Once somebody identifies and moves into that treatment, they almost instantly are logged into a single information source. It’s in essence a epidemiological tracking system that allows local health departments, clinics and the Utah Department of Health to connect information. And that allows the process to begin. It allows the referral and the screening for testing. And once there is either a negative or positive test, local health departments are notified. I would say yes, anybody who was there since the 6th. And it’s important to note the person who was working there wasn’t there the whole time. They were in and out. We do have a list of contacts we’re investigating. Those are individuals who were in close quarters to this person. But we still believe there’s relatively low risk to the public because he was at the front door and people were coming past him they weren’t lingering in close proximity. So that’s what we advise, just monitor those risks and access the system.
LT: I was going to say the man probably handled everyone’s driver’s license. Took it from them and handed them back?
RB: Probably so.
LT: So it appears Summit County has been the hardest hit so far in Utah. Any guess at how many more cases we can see?
RB: I can’t guess but I do believe it will be a bigger number than we anticipate. If you look at the current models - and I’m not going to throw a number out there - but if you look at the current models of spread, every individual who is positive will infect on average 2.5 people. That’s an average. That’s based on the data from countries where the outbreak is more significant than ours is right now. So if you do the math, one to 2.5, it’s an exponential curve. It grows quickly. We’re bracing for that. The medical systems are bracing for that. The message isn’t one of fear. It’s one of people taking precautions. We need to take this seriously, we need to practice social distancing, good hygiene. As I said at the news conference this morning, this is the time we should be looking not just at ourselves, but the people around us we’re impacting. Our behaviors and what we do as far as washing hands, covering up coughs and sneezes, social distancing, having respect for those people around you. This is the time we need to focus on that. It’s not about us only, it’s about our families, it’s about our community it’s about making sure those at highest risk, which are older adults with comorbid conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease lung disease. Those are the populations of people at highest risk and we need to make sure we do what we can do to protect them.
LT: And do you think our hospitals and local clinics will be able to handle those that need help?
RB: I can’t forecast that. What I can tell you is that they’ve been working on this for a long time. They’ve been preparing long before COVID-19 was in the news. I trust them. They’re experts at what they do. I think they’ve prepared and only they can really speak to what their ultimate capacity will be.
LT: Again by five o’clock tomorrow we should see a press release and an order telling all restaurants, eating establishments, drinking establishments that as of 5pm tomorrow business will only be done on a drive-up business.
RB: Correct. Drive up or delivery.
LT: Anything else you want to say?
RB: A couple of things. First of all I think people generally know what a remarkable community we have. As Tom said, watching our businesses and partners rally around this issue. I’ll be real forthright about this. We’ve been part of this process, but many of these individuals and businesses have been ahead of the curve. They’ve taken action we haven’t had to mandate. And that really is remarkable. The partnership is impressive and pretty awe inspiring. I’d also say we have a heck of a crew here in local government. I’m really proud of us and our municipalities as well. We have really good partners. Our departments are working well together, I’m proud of our staff. I haven’t once had to prod somebody to do something. They’re here early in the morning, late at night, on weekends. They’re rocking it. We have a good team addressing this.
LT: I appreciate your time, Rich. Tom, economically, what do you think this will do to our local economy and how will that manifest in the county budget and some big capital projects?
TF: Clearly this is going to have an impact. I’m not sure we’re as wise to tell you today what that will be. But I think all of us in local government whether you’re a small municipality the county or Park City you are going to be examining our budgets, our revenue projections for next year and making some hard choices because this is going to have an effect. I would say long term, and this might be too technical, but if you look at transportation projects, certainly some of those have to do with sales taxes. But a lot of it has to do with B & C road funds. I don’t know what the state will project on that given the situation. I’m more concerned about our general municipal funds. Although those are property tax based we also have some sales taxes that support some of those functions that are also supported by property tax. So we’re going to have to take a really good look at that before we start our budget process in June for the county to make sure that we make the proper adjustments. One thing that we have done extremely well over the last few years is building our fund balances so we can plan for the next time we need to use those to continue levels of service. I think we will be dipping into those to deal with this current crisis but we will also use those as we move into future budget years.
LT: We have ski areas closed, restaurants closed, all the fun stuff. But people can get outside, go for a walk, keep their distance, visit other well people, and take care of their neighbors if necessary. All those activities okay?
RB: Following the guidelines you mentioned and following the recommendations from the health department and the state. We’re also going to have people working on recommendations out to our community about things they can be doing. A lot of the things we consider recreation we get used to the easy things and the big things that will go away. There are plenty for us to do to keep ourselves busy especially as our kids are out of school for a little while.
TF: I’m sure we’ll have more tomorrow.
LT: (Thank you.)