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Eviction hearings on hold in 9th District, but some organizations call for full moratorium during public health emergency

A new month means the rent or mortgage payment comes due for most Garfield County and Roaring Fork Valley residents. 

But, as many people are experiencing reduced work hours or outright joblessness prompted by emergency business shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some are forced to make a decision between paying their landlord or the bank on time or keeping food on the table.

Janeth Niebla, who works with area families in need of assistance through the Carbondale-based Manaus organization, said she’s advising people to indeed prioritize food over rent, if it comes to that.

“Many people find themselves in a very unique situation, where the families affected most by this are either on front lines, in the grocery stores or health services, while others are living paycheck to paycheck, and now they don’t have that,” Niebla said in a video interview Tuesday along with other leaders of the Mountain Voices Project, a program of Manaus.

“The heart behind the work we do is thinking about the safety of the community, and wanting to support these families,” she said.

While some may be able to ride it out for a month, the situation grows more dire with each passing week that the economy is stalled, increasing the looming threat of an eviction notice or foreclosure action.

Pressure is being applied at multiple levels, from the Office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to the Ninth Judicial District Bar Association and the Mountain Voices Project, requesting a full moratorium on eviction and foreclosure proceedings.  

Ninth District Chief Judge James Boyd this week amended a previous order regarding judicial proceedings during the public health emergency, in which eviction cases are addressed.

While new filings for both eviction actions and foreclosures will continue to be accepted, they will not be heard until at least June 1.

“This order does not change any existing settings, nor does it limit the authority of the judge presiding over a case of these types with existing settings to reschedule proceedings on the court’s own motion to a future date,” Boyd wrote in the March 30 amended order.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario also clarified that the order means no evictions, pending or otherwise, will be carried out until June 1, “unless there’s a health or safety hazard issue,” such as an unsafe premise. 

In fact, the judge’s order specifically does not preclude motions requesting an earlier action “necessary to prevent a substantial risk of imminent financial hardship or imminent risk to the health, safety or welfare of any individual or the community at large.”

Mountain Voices Project is an affiliate of the national community organizing group Industrial Areas Foundation, operating under Manaus.

Lead Mountain Voices Project organizer Alice Steindler said her group is still looking for some clarity, not just from Boyd but from other civic leaders, about the financial ramifications.

“What we’re hearing loud and clear right now is that folks who should be paying their rent in the next few days are not only very concerned about this month but are thinking ahead a month or two, and what that will bring,” Steindler said.

The attorney general and the governor have made “some good, thoughtful recommendations,” she said, but renters and landlords alike could use some assurance that they’re part of the equation.

“We’re not looking to put all of this responsibility on landlords,” Steindler said. “We understand that people being able to have that rental income is important, but we need some decisions sooner than later.”

Father Bert Chilson of St. Stephen Catholic Parish in Glenwood Springs also works with MVP as a community organizer. He said he has already heard of at least one instance where a property manager in Garfield County issued formal notice to tenants advising that rent will be expected to be paid on time this month.

“This is a time of great fear,” he said. “The stress is real for everyone, and for our immigrant population, it’s that stress level times 10.

“Right now, we have an order to stay at home, but if we start to see threats to remove people from their homes, how are we going to keep people safe?”

Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin said the county has taken steps to provide financial assistance, including a $500,000 emergency fund for the Department of Human Services to help people with needs such as rental assistance.

But evictions are a judicial matter, he said.

“We don’t get involved with those proceedings, but we have asked the departments we oversee to use patience and forego any actions until after this crisis,” Martin said.

The county has also worked to assemble a team to help get the local economy back on track once the crisis is passed. That will help point individuals and businesses to various resources, including the federal funds that are to be available, to help reboot the economy, he said.

Keeping people in their homes during this time is crucial, if the only reason they would be asked to leave is financial, say Steindler and others.

Mountain Voices Project, in a letter to Boyd last week, called for Garfield and Pitkin counties to join others, including Denver, Mesa, Weld and Boulder counties, in explicitly declaring a moratorium on eviction filings, not just proceedings.  

The Ninth Judicial and Pitkin County Bar Associations also penned a joint letter to Boyd seeking the same.

“We believe that a clear order from you will quell much anxiety that is circulating throughout our community — especially in light of the fact that the fact that … many have been forced out of their jobs because of public safety measures,” their letter reads. “… We urge you to recognize the imminent need to pause entry of residential eviction orders for failure to pay rent during this emergency … nobody should be without a home as Colorado grapples with this pandemic.”

Jennifer Wherry of Alpine Legal Services, which provides free and low-cost legal advice and representation on civil matters in the region, said her organization stands at the ready to help people who are facing eviction. 

“We are working on setting up a hotline in partnership with private bar associations to increase capacity for free legal aid during this time of substantial need,” Wherry said. Economic stress can also be the underlying cause of many of the domestic violence cases Alpine Legal Services deals with, she added.

“Whatever we can all do to help people feel safe in their homes right now will increase the health and safety of us all,” she said.


PHOTOS: Signs of the times

 Near New Store, a thrift shop, in downtown Carbondale.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent
Downtown Carbondale.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent
Glenwood Springs Mall
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent
With shows cancelled and postponed for now, the Ute Theater in Rifle is sending positive thoughts to the community during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sweet Coloradough in Glenwood.
Peter Baumann / Post Independent
Big Sid’s Liquor in Glenwood.
Peter Baumann / Post Independent

Post Independent publisher discusses changes to the paper

Sunday was the last weekend edition of the Post Independent for the time being.

Starting this week, there will be no Saturday or Sunday papers as the Post Independent makes cuts to better weather the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s just one of the difficult decisions Jerry Raehal, publisher and marketing director for the paper, has made in the past week.

“Like many businesses right now, we’re struggling with the short term and long term, and not even knowing what short term and long term really mean at this point,” Raehal said.

Along with ending weekend print editions, the inside of the weekday papers will also change.

The paper is no longer contracting for opinion pieces from national or local columnists, but will continue running letters to the editor.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced those changes, but Raehal has been considering restructuring the opinion pages for some time.

“We’ve often debated about whether, in its current format, our opinion page was serving a purpose,” Raehal said.

There will still be some columns, Raehal said, but focused much more on local issues and less on major political talking points that don’t further constructive dialogue within the community.

There are plenty of ways people can read national political news, and “We really want to focus [the opinion page] on community-focused issues, as opposed to the national side of it,” Raehal said.

The opinion page changes, as well as reducing one print day over the weekend, were already on the table before the coronavirus, Raehal added.

Since Raehal announced the changes to the paper, the strongest reaction he’s received had to do with losing the comics section at the back of the paper.

And he gets it — he also enjoyed reading the comics.

“That was personally painful for me, not just because I enjoyed them, but my kids really enjoyed them,” Raehal said.

Dropping the comics was primarily about preserving payroll.

“It basically came down to a decision of, lose comics, keep staff, or keep comics and potentially lose a staff member. I chose keeping someone on our team. And I would do it again,” Raehal said.

No one at the Post Independent has been furloughed, although many employees will see reduced work hours.

With the countless changes and difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the response of local, state and national governments, the Post Independent has never been more widely read, Raehal said.

Even the physical papers are still getting picked up — though there are only a few racks where the paper is being distributed.

The Post Independent has taken some measures to avoid the chance of COVID-19 spreading — like removing doors on many of the newspaper racks.

The risk of COVID-19 being spread through contamination of newspapers itself is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to a CDC fact sheet.

Online readership is also up, and readership of the e-edition — a digital copy of the print product available online — quadrupled after the Post Independent removed the paywall on March 15.

But the reality of the Post Independent’s business model, supported entirely by advertising and not by paid subscriptions, means that when businesses are struggling, marketing budgets shrink, too.

Business partners who continue to use the paper’s marketing abilities helped prevent deeper cuts, Raehal said.

“We serve our community by providing news, we serve our business community by providing a platform to get their messaging out. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Raehal said.


Glenwood Springs facilities to remain closed through at least April 30

The city of Glenwood Springs’ public buildings will remain closed at least until April 30.

The continued closure includes the community center, art center, city hall as well as the police and fire departments’ administrative offices.

Police, fire and other essential services will remain intact despite the facility closures.

City parks and trails are open to the public so long as social distancing requirements are met.

However, all skate parks, sports courts, playgrounds, picnic pavilions and other areas conducive to close proximity gatherings are closed.

Additionally, the city’s landfill will only accept trash hauler trucks, construction waste, residential trash and recycling at this time.

The landfill has suspended its collection of electronic recycling and yard waste until the stay-at-home order is lifted.

The city has asked residents not to travel to the landfill unless it is absolutely necessary.

Glenwood’s online community forums continue Wednesday

The city of Glenwood Springs continues its series of online community forums Wednesday.

Lift-Up Executive Director Angela Mills and Garfield County Nutrition Program Manager Christine Dolan will join Mayor Jonathan Godes for Wednesday’s forum set to begin at 11 a.m.

Additionally, Amy Shipley and Laurin Arnold with Garfield County Libraries will participate in Thursday’s forum also set to start at 11 a.m.

The city will also hold a bilingual forum at 3 p.m. Friday featuring Dr. Alan Michael Vargas of Grand River Health and Brisa Chavez with Garfield County.

Residents can watch all of the city’s forums, live, on the City’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GlenwoodSpringsCO/

In Glenwood Springs, construction industry not immune to COVID-19

Construction at Two Rivers Park and infrastructure improvements planned for Cedar Crest’s roads and underlying infrastructure has been put on hold.

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis implemented a statewide stay-at-home order in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Businesses deemed critical, however, can still operate including those that fall under the umbrella of construction.

Those businesses must comply with social distancing requirements per the public health order.

“What’s the intent of the order? It’s to be as aggressive at flattening the curve as we possibly can,” Karl Hanlon, Glenwood Springs city attorney, said.

While the order’s overall intent might be clear, exactly what it means with respect to construction depends on who you ask.

At a special city council meeting Thursday, councilors unanimously approved suspending construction at Two Rivers Park and postponing Cedar Crest’s upcoming work at least until this Thursday.

The Two Rivers Park Project began last October and was scheduled to conclude later this Spring.

Additionally, Gould Construction was ready to begin work on Cedar Crest’s roadway and underlying infrastructure improvements on April 6.

Council halted those two projects specifically — not all construction in Glenwood Springs.

Council will revisit that decision at Thursday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

“Glenwood is taking a pretty conservative interpretation on all of the governor’s orders. That’s why we shut down Ride Glenwood a week-and-a-half ago,” Mayor Jonathan Godes said. “Just because Garfield County or other communities haven’t taken the same viewpoint as we have, doesn’t mean that we’re wrong or they’re wrong.”

Pitkin County recently ordered all residential and commercial construction sites not considered essential infrastructure to shut down by April 1.

On the other hand, Garfield County is allowing construction to continue so long as workers adhere to social distancing requirements and other safety protocols.

In Garfield County, construction workers must stay 6 feet apart and job sites cannot have more than 10 employees present at any given time.

Local contractor Gould Construction was ready to break ground on the Cedar Crest Project in Glenwood Springs, but now doesn’t know when that work will begin.

Gould Construction Chairman Mark Gould said the company was strictly adhering to all of the safety guidelines set forth and insisted work could be done safely.

“We can create social distancing in our business,” Gould said. “We’re asking everybody questions…We’re taking temperatures, we’re making people drive in their separate vehicles.”

One Gould Construction employee was in quarantine for 14 days — not because they tested positive for COVID-19 — but because one of their family members did, Gould said.

Gould, being a seasonal contractor, has approximately 50 employees in the winter and 100 during the summer.

“We’re looking forward to hiring those 50 people back,” Gould said. “We’re not endangering the public’s lives.”

Although the Two Rivers Park and Cedar Crest projects have been put on hold for the time being, future ones like the reconstruction of South Midland remain on track.

“Everything is proceeding and all the designers are working remotely,” said Terri Partch, Glenwood Springs city engineer.

Additionally, Public Works Director Matthew Langhorst said city employees were still sweeping streets and filling potholes in teams of one or two.

“If meetings, coordination or construction cannot be done effectively and safely per council direction, public works would stop that project and wait until the crisis allows for work to move forward,” Langhorst said.


Meals on Wheels gets a boost with $40,000 Garfield County contribution, as demand increases amid health crisis

A $40,000 grant approved by the Garfield County commissioners on Friday will allow the Grand River Meals on Wheels to sustain its home delivery meal services to homebound clients in western Garfield County.

The vote came as the need for social distancing measures around COVID-19 has driven participation in the program up 20% since early March, according to a county press release.

“Most of our clients are in their 80s and 90s. Every request seems like a heart-wrencher,” GRMoW Director Kaaren Peck said in the release. “In addition to the recent growth in demand for food delivery, our programs largest annual fundraiser, Empty Bowls, was postponed due to COVID, just 10 days before our event.”

Based out of Grand River Health in Rifle, the program provides over 20,000 nutritious meals, and daily contact to homebound seniors, the disabled, and hospice clients from New Castle to Parachute/Battlement Mesa each year.

“This program has been running for 44 years,” Peck said. “We are more than just a meal, we definitely are.”

Given the current public health concerns, precautions due to COVID-19 have forced meal-delivery volunteers to practice social distancing, limiting the contact with clients. According to Peck, the program has had to make adjustments to keep volunteers and clients safe.

“We can’t do the chat at the door that normally happens, so we are setting up phone connections now so that our clients don’t feel the isolation even more. These personal relationships keep our drivers coming back. We say that our clients are our peeps, and we take care of our peeps.”

The program also provides birthday bags with handmade items for clients during their birthday months, and blizzard bags with emergency food and supplies for the winter.

“We even have a 4-H student who makes festive cookies for special holidays,” Peck said. “Our people are well cared for and loved by this community.”

Garfield County surpasses Pitkin Co. in confirmed COVID-19 cases

Garfield County now has 31 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, overtaking Pitkin County in total number of cases, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Pitkin County, one of the nearby hotspots early on in the pandemic, had 29 confirmed cases as of Monday. Pitkin still has a higher per-capita rate of confirmed cases than Garfield County.

To date, only one person has died after testing positive for COVID-19 in Garfield County.

Due to the limited availability of testing, not every potential case of COVID-19 will be tested, so the number of actual cases is likely higher.

Across Colorado, 414 people had been hospitalized Monday, and there have been 51 deaths in the state attributed to COVID-19 since the outbreak began.

Those figures were not broken down by county.

Integrative Pet Vet column: COVID-19 and veterinary medical care

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all our lives. Our stress and distress associated with COVID-19 directly affects our pets. They recognize that we are struggling with a difficult situation but they don’t understand the cause. This escalates their stress levels. One stress affecting many pet care givers is the fear that veterinary care for their pet companions will not continue to be available. This is a major concern because many pets have ongoing medical needs and others have urgent needs.

Veterinary services are considered essential for animal health. As a result veterinary practices are expected to remain open much longer than other service businesses during this pandemic. To stay open, veterinarians and their staff face a wide range of challenges. They are striving to provide veterinary care for their patients while avoiding their own exposure and preventing spread of COVID-19.

Veterinary medical facilities are meeting these challenges based on recommendations from resources like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and veterinary experts in infectious diseases. Recommendations are centered around social distancing, avoiding congregation of people, disinfection and use of personal protection equipment (PPE) when applicable. Prioritizing the urgency of the medical issue is being used. This means that elective and noncritical appointments and procedures are being postponed in an effort to reduce veterinary staff exposure to the public and conserve critical medical supplies.

Understanding of COVID-19 is expanding rapidly, but there is much that needs to be determined. For example, it is not completely clear if pets are naturally infected with COVID-19. Current expert opinion is that dogs and cats are not being infected. This is supported by a recent announcement of laboratory screening of samples from thousands of dogs and cats that were all negative for COVID-19. There is, however, a low level concern that pets can have COVID-19 on their coat and can act as a fomite (object with virus on it) when the pet is in contact with a COVID-19 positive person.

When requesting an appointment with your veterinarian, you may find new procedures in place. Veterinary staff will determine the urgency of the medical problem before scheduling the appointment. They may also ask if you have symptoms of a respiratory infection or may have been exposed to anyone that is ill. This will play a role in determining how the appointment is managed. Veterinary facilities are managing social distancing and reducing staff exposure risks by a combination of limited contact with individuals at the reception desk, not allowing clients to congregate in their facility, not allowing anyone except staff into the facility, or offering curbside service. Curbside service may involve a staff member meeting the client in the parking lot so that staff can transport the pet into the facility while the client remains in their car. Discussion about the pet occurs either at a distance or by telephone. These processes limit contact between people while allowing for continuing medical care. Telehealth is getting lots of attention as a way to limit contact between people. While there are certainly benefits and it should be used in some situations, in its current form it cannot meet all needs for pet patients.

In addition to social distancing efforts, veterinary staff are working to limit staff, client and patient exposure by regular hand washing, judicious use of PPE, and facility disinfection. While navigating all these changes, be patient with the veterinary staff, ask questions if you don’t understand the new procedures, be respectful of social distances, and be sure to inform them if you are ill or have been exposed.

COVID-19 has created changes in our personal routines and increased stress levels. Our pet companions feel this stress. Focus on keeping your pet companion’s routines as consistent as possible with regular walks and play activity while following appropriate recommendations. Keep regular feeding times. In addition, there are numerous products that can help to reduce pet stress including nutriceuticals like Composure, Bach Flower remedies like Rescue Remedy, essential oils like lavender (be cautious with cats), pheromones, and herbs like valerian. Managing your own stress is valuable.

Contact your veterinarian if you have questions about how they are addressing the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to provide quality veterinary care for your pet companions.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

Close to 1,000 people apply for COVID-19 relief in Aspen area

More than 800 people have applied to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 financial relief program, with the majority of them being Aspen residents, according to Nan Sundeen, director of health and human services for the county.

Aspen City Council on Monday unanimously voted to appropriate $200,000 to the county fund, which is just around $1.3 million.

The county has ponied up $1 million, and the town of Snowmass Village contributed $100,000 so far.

Council members agreed during Monday’s special meeting that much more will be required to help Aspen residents during this unprecedented crisis.

“People are saying that the $2 trillion federal package is not going to be sufficient,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “We’re going to need more money … clearly the ($200,000) is not enough money for what we’re going to be facing in the next three months to three years, so the sooner we think about other sources of funds the better.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards suggested that the city borrow as much as $5 million from the Wheeler Opera House fund, which has roughly $30 million in reserves, for local economic relief.

She also suggested that as much as $1 million be taken from the city’s housing fund to provide rental relief in municipal government-owned residential buildings, as well as those in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority inventory and the free-market units where local workers reside.

“I think the magnitude of what we’re dealing with has come into sharper relief over the past week,” she said, referring to Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home public health order and President Donald Trump giving guidelines that restrict Americans’ movement until April 30. “So we are all buckled in for a bumpy road.”

Council and city staff will discuss Richards’ proposal as early as next week.

As of Friday, 58% of the applicants for the Pitkin County relief fund are city residents and 16% were from Snowmass Village, according to Sundeen.

About $30,000 has been approved and of that, $25,000 has been doled out.

Sundeen said the county is distributing an average of between $600 and $1,800 to individuals and households.

“Eighty percent of that is for shelter,” she said Monday. “There has been some for food and gas and debit cards for other expenses.”

Applicants’ information is screened at three levels to determine eligibility and need.

Without getting into specifics about the criteria used to determine who and how much, Sundeen said people seeking financial assistance are asked certain questions like whether they have three months of shelter saved up, or if they were self-sufficient prior to March 14 when public health orders went into effect, drastically reducing employment opportunities resulting from the impacts of COVID-19.

The county has hired temporary workers and upped its volunteer base to help expedite processing the applications.

But still, it could take as long as a “few weeks to process,” according to an email that Sundeen sent Friday to applicants. “Be aware that someone will call you from a blocked phone number to conduct the required interview, so please answer your phone to help expedite your request.”

“We are calling people back as soon as we can,” Sundeen said Monday.

The financial relief is aimed at providing a bridge for local workers who are awaiting state and federal assistance, Sundeen said.

“It’s a bridge to April, not April 1,” she said.

Her email urged applicants to talk to their landlords in an attempt to negotiate a deferred payment until county relief eligibility is determined. Those with mortgages are urged to contact their mortgage lender to negotiate a deferred payment schedule.

The email also points to websites for other financial aid, like the Colorado Department of Labor, as well as local food banks.

The city’s funds may be eligible for reimbursement in the future through state and federal relief packages; however, there is no guarantee, according to city officials.

They acknowledged that the reimbursement processes also take time, while the need is immediate for the city’s economically vulnerable residents.

Sundeen said there have been no private donations made into the county relief fund.

She added that the community embracing the COVID-19 crisis mantra of “we are all in this together” motivates her.

“We really appreciate the efforts of neighbor to neighbor,” she said. “It’s inspiring and keeps us going.”